NASA launches climate change-tracking Landsat 9 satellite

NASA's Landsat 9 satellite travels toward its intended orbit after launch from California on Monday. Photo courtesy of NASA
1 of 5 | NASA's Landsat 9 satellite travels toward its intended orbit after launch from California on Monday. Photo courtesy of NASA

Sept. 27 (UPI) -- NASA launched its latest Earth observation satellite Monday from California to help track climate events that range from hurricanes to wildfires to deforestation of the Amazon.

A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carried the 5,900-pound spacecraft into orbit from Vandenberg Space Force Base with liftoff at 2:12 p.m. EDT.


The rocket traveled through thick clouds but weather wasn't considered a threat, launch announcers said. The clouds glowed orange as the Atlas V ascended.

Landsat 9 is the ninth in a series that NASA began to launch in 1972, marking a five-decade partnership between the space agency and the U.S. Geological Survey.

At 3:32 p.m. EDT, one hour and 20 minutes after launch, NASA and ULA confirmed that the Landsat 9 spacecraft separated from the upper stage of the rocket, headed to its intended orbit.


Landsat 9 is intended to provide a continuous record of climate change, urban area growth, glacial melt, cropland health and other phenomena.

"Landsat is our longest-lived remote sensing program," Jeff Masek, project scientist at NASA's Maryland-based Goddard Space Flight Center, said during a press conference Friday.

"Since 1972, it has amassed over 9 million multispectral images of Earth's land in coastal regions."

The new Landsat satellite will join sister satellite Landsat 8 in orbit "to continue collecting images from across the planet to monitor essential resources, including crops, irrigation water and forests," Masek said.

Landsat 9, which cost some $900 million, will complete surveys of important coastal areas every eight days at a height of 438 miles -- far above the International Space Station.

The near-polar orbit will be synchronized with the sun's daylight to ensure well-illuminated imagery, Masek said.

NASA delayed the launch by more than a week due to regional shortages of super-cooled liquid propellant fuels prompted by use of liquid oxygen to treat COVID-19 patients at hospitals.

The satellite carries two powerful imaging instruments to measure visible, reflected light and surface temperatures. Using those data points, NASA can establish a record of plant health, surface composition and the loss or addition of water or rainfall.


Northrup Grumman, which designed and built the spacecraft, was responsible for integrating the two instruments.

Without Landsat, the world wouldn't know about the large-scale deforestation of the Amazon in Brazil due to agricultural expansion there, said Inbal Becker-Reshef, director of NASA's Harvest food security and agriculture program.

"Landsat's long-term record has enabled us to track the expansion of such cropland in Brazil by a factor of 2.6 times from 1985 to 2018," Becker-Reshef said.

Humanitarian organizations use Landsat data to help make key decisions ... to manage impending crop shortfalls, she said.

The growing climate change crisis makes Landsat more important than ever, said Sabrina Chapman, a system engineering manager with Northrop Grumman.

"My favorite thing about Landsat is ... monitoring the changes over time due to climate change. That's very important thing in our world right now," Chapman said.

According to a Landsat 9 fact sheet, NASA is responsible for the instruments and the spacecraft, mission integration, launch and on-orbit checkout. USGS is responsible for the flight system, flight operations and data processing and distribution.

Landsat 9, which has an expected lifespan for at least 10 years, is to move into the orbit of Landsat 7, which will be decommissioned.


Out-of-this-world images from space

The International Space Station is pictured from the SpaceX Crew Dragon Endeavour during a flyaround of the orbiting lab that took place following its undocking from the Harmony module’s space-facing port on November 8. Photo courtesy of NASA

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