NASA Landsat 8 Satellite Launch: Where It's Going and What It Could Mean For the Future

The Landsat 8 satellite is scheduled for launch from the Vandenburg Air Force Base in California this Monday, February 11, between 10.02 a.m. and 10.50 a.m. (PST). Pitched as the most important NASA Earth-observing mission in more than a decade, Landsat 8 will be on course to join its 13-year old predecessor Landsat 7 in their mission to monitor global landscape and land use change across our rapidly altering planet. There have been several generations of these observers, including a 28-year old Landsat 5, which was finally laid to rest last month, that have brought us images of melting glaciers, burning rainforests and depleted bodies of water from the vantage point of earth's orbit.

This latest mission was commissioned back in 2002, and after a tumultuous struggle following the privatization of all satellites in the 1980s, which resulted in global imaging costs sky-rocketing (pun intended), George W. Bush eventually called for a government controlled effort, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission. And Landsat 8 was authorized.

But what does it mean to have Landsat 8 joining its partly blind, fuel depleted forerunner, number 7? Well, with even higher precision sensors than previous Landsat models, Landsat 8 will be able to capture instantaneous views of a 185 km plot of earth, using 7,000 sensors for multiple bandwidths and traveling about 700 km above our heads. With new technology built in, Landsat 8 will be able to "see ultra-blue," which would allow us to better study oceans and atmospheric aerosols. Another new add-on, measuring the short-wave infrared band, will offer us a way to image cirrus clouds, which play a key role in our climate. In fact, this $855 million project for NASA will yield more data from each location than ever before. And the image quality?

"Maybe we will be able to better differentiate corn from sorghum, for example, or maple trees from oak trees." enthuses to Dr Jim Irons, project scientist for the Landsat 8 mission at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

So pretty good then.

However, as with all space ventures, the inherent risk is not minimal. If this mission fails, as Landsat 6 did in 1993, Landsat 7 will be all alone up there and is not predicted to survive past 2016. That puts a lot of pressure on Monday's mission, as NASA would not have enough time to build and launch another earth-resources satellite and all the many scientists that rely on these images would be left in the dark!

So best of luck Landsat 8. I have my fingers and toes crossed for you!

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Beth Ashbridge

PhD in Chemical Biology. Currently Research Fellow in Cancer Biology (www.bettybooashbridge.wordpress.com)

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