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U.S. Department of the Interior

U.S. Geological Survey

Fact Sheet 2012–3072

May 2012

Landsat: A Global Land-Imaging Mission

Printed on recycled paper

Across four decades since 1972, Landsat satellites have

continuously acquired space-based images of the Earth’s land

surface, coastal shallows, and coral reefs. The Landsat Pro

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gram, a joint effort of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and

the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA),

was established to routinely gather land imagery from space.

NASA develops remote-sensing instruments and spacecraft,

then launches and validates the performance of the instruments

and satellites. The USGS then assumes ownership and operation

of the satellites, in addition to managing all ground reception,

data archiving, product generation, and distribution. The result

of this program is a long-term record of natural and human-

induced changes on the global landscape (see table 1).

History of the Landsat Program

In the mid-1960s, stimulated by U.S. successes in plan

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etary exploration using unmanned remote-sensing satellites,

the Department of the Interior, NASA, and the Department of

Agriculture embarked on an ambitious effort to develop and

launch the first civilian Earth observation satellite. Their goal

was achieved on July 23, 1972, with the launch of Landsat 1,

originally named “ERTS” for Earth Resources Technology

Satellite. Landsat satellites have since provided worldwide

science and resource-management communities with an archive

of space-based land remotely sensed data—a valuable resource

for people who work in agriculture, geology, forestry, education,

regional planning, mapping, and global change research.

Today, Landsat 5 (launched in 1984) and Landsat 7

(launched in 1999) continue to capture hundreds of images of

the Earth’s surface each day. Landsat 6, the only satellite in

the series not developed by NASA, failed to achieve orbit in

1993. The next generation land observation system, the Landsat

Data Continuity Mission (LDCM—to become Landsat 8 after

launch), is intended to ensure continuity of Landsat data well

beyond the duration of the Landsat 7 mission.

The USGS also leads a Landsat Science Team that devel

-

ops and evaluates applications which highlight the historical

Landsat record of observations as well as the capabilities of

next-generation satellite data, defines a global, long-term data

acquisition plan, and advises the USGS on Landsat data require

-

ments of the user community.

Characteristics of the Landsat System

Each Landsat satellite images the Earth’s surface along the

satellite’s ground track in a 185 kilometer-wide (115 mile-wide)

swath as the satellite moves in a descending orbit (moving from

north to south) over the sunlit side of the Earth. Each satel

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lite crosses every point on the Earth at nearly the same time

once every 16 or 18 days, depending on its altitude. Landsats

1, 2, and 3 orbited at an altitude of 920 kilometers (572 miles),

circling the Earth every 103 minutes yielding repeat coverage

every 18 days. Landsats 4, 5, and 7 were placed in orbit at

705 kilometers (438 miles) altitude, circling the Earth every

99 minutes, for a 16-day repeat cycle.

The primary sensor onboard Landsats 1, 2, and 3 was

the Multispectral Scanner (MSS), with an image resolution of

approximately 80 meters in four spectral bands ranging from the

visible green to the near-infrared (IR) wavelengths (see table 2).

Today, Landsat 5 (launched in 1984) and Landsat 7

(launched in 1999) continue to capture hundreds of images of

the Earth’s surface each day. Landsat 6, the only satellite in

the series not developed by NASA, failed to achieve orbit in

1993. The next generation land observation system, the Landsat

Data Continuity Mission (LDCM—to become Landsat 8 after

launch), is intended to ensure continuity of Landsat data well

beyond the duration of the Landsat 7 mission.

The USGS also leads a Landsat Science Team that devel

-

ops and evaluates applications which high

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