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NASA Planning to Continue Earth Land Imaging Survey

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NASA Planning to Continue Earth Land Imaging Survey
In the midst of continuing debate within Congress over how much NASA is spending on earth science vs. spending on space exploration, the space agency recently announced that it is partnering with the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) to begin development of Landsat 9 (1), slated to be launched in 2023.

Landsat 9 will essentially replicate the current mission in the series, Landsat 8, which was launched in 2013.

“The mission will carry two instruments, one that captures views of the planet in visible, near-infrared and shortwave-infrared light, and another that measures the thermal infrared radiation, or heat, of Earth’s surfaces. These instruments have sensors with moderate resolution and the ability to detect more variation in intensity than the first seven satellites in the Landsat program.”

NASA’s Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland will take the lead in the development of Landsat 9. It will also develop an improved version of the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS) that is currently being carried on Landsat 8.

The Landsat program (2) has been ongoing since 1972 with the launch of the first Landsat. The purpose of the program is to study the Earth’s surface in real time and monitor the continued effects of human action and natural forces.

The science garnered by the Landsat program is widespread, encompassing applications in agriculture, cartography, geology, forestry, regional planning, surveillance, and education.

Role of Earth Science

The Landsat program has innumerable practical benefits, helping to monitor land use, agriculture, water distribution, forest management, and the growth of urban areas.

Landsat data has been crucial for combating natural disasters such as wildfires and hurricanes. The program has also been useful for providing data concerning global warming or, as many prefer to call it, climate change.

For other environmental threats, Landsat provides data mapping of the effects of water and air pollution and monitoring its effects on human health.

While NASA is generally seen as concerning itself with space exploration and the development of aerospace technology, earth science (3) has been part of its mandate from its creation in 1958 and as ratified by the most recent authorization act passed in 2010 (4).

The reason for this is that NASA’s expertise in developing satellites has proven instrumental in monitoring the Earth and keeping track of its condition. Generally NASA partners with other agencies, such as the USGS or the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) to conduct Earth observation missions. Data derived from missions such as Landsat is freely made available to any entity that needs it.


Political Controversy

NASA’s earth science program has been the subject of recent political controversy in Congress. During a recent hearing before the Senate subcommittee overseeing the space agency, that subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, got into a heated discussion with NASA Administrator Charles Bolden (5). The debate was over huge increases in the space agency’s earth science budget contrasted with cutbacks in its space exploration and planetary science programs.

Bolden offered a vigorous defense of his agency’s earth science missions. Nevertheless, Bolden faced the earth science vs. space controversy again during a more recent hearing before the House Science Committee (6).

Some observers have suggested that the objections being advanced by Cruz and others are bound up in the politics of climate change. This would be ironic since satellite data suggests that the pace of global warming has stalled since the late 1990s, according to some climate scientists (7).

Signs point to a possible attempt by Congress to transfer funding from NASA’s earth science account to pay for increases for space exploration. Such a move is likely to be resisted by the current administration. On the other hand, a possible compromise might involve increasing NASA’s budget to accommodate both earth science and space exploration (8).

References & Image Credits:
(1) NASA
(2) NASA
(3) NASA: Earth
(4) US Congress
(5) Space Policy Online
(6) Bolden Defends Arm Earth Science
(7) CNS News
(8) Examiner
(9) Wikipedia: Screenshot Landsat Program
(10) Wikipedia: Landsat 8

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