Landsat and the Future of Space-Based Land Imaging Programs

For more than 40 years, the space-based series of satellites known as Landsat has provided a continuous record of Earth's land surfaces. Landsat data and imagery has helped to advance understanding and management of key national interests such as agriculture, forestry, hydrology, urbanization, homeland security, disaster mitigation, and climate change. As the record lengthens, researchers are able to document effects of climate variability, invasive species, and land use that have no direct analog in past events and can better differentiate between short-term variability and longer-term trends.

However, the future of the program is in jeopardy, says a new report from the National Research Council. Landsat 7, launched in 1999, is operating in a degraded mode, and the most recent satellite, Landsat 8, was launched in February 2013 with only a five-year design life. While Landsat 9 is under discussion, its program missions are unclear, management responsibilities have not been articulated, and no budget has been appropriated. Historically, Landsat satellites have been justified, planned, and executed individually or at most in pairs.

The report, Landsat and Beyond: Sustaining and Enhancing the Nation's Land Imaging Program, concludes that a continued program will not be viable under the current mission development and management practices. The committee that wrote the report recommends that the U.S. government establish a sustained and enhanced land imaging program with an overarching national strategy and long-term commitment, including clearly defined program requirements, management responsibilities, and persistent funding.

While the report does not recommend who should oversee the program -- which is currently managed jointly by the U.S. Geological Survey and NASA -- it outlines key elements of a successful program regardless of where the federal government decides it should reside. The core scientific and operational requirement for a future program is the capture and distribution of global data that is calibrated to allow the comparison of future land images with previous collections, easily accessible by all users, and free, the report says.

The committee also describes its top priorities for a future program, including technical capabilities, data systems, and opportunities for integration between government, private, and foreign-based entities.


The report is available for immediate release at Media inquiries should be directed to the National Academies' Office of News and Public Information; tel. 202-334-2138 or e-mail