NASA green lights key phase for Landsat-9’s development

by Chris Bergin

NASA has contracted Orbital ATK via a “delivery order under the Rapid Spacecraft Acquisition III (Rapid III)” contract for construction of the Landsat 9 spacecraft. The latest spacecraft in the Landsat series, which began operations in 1972, is expected to be launched by an Atlas V from Vandenberg in late 2020.


This latest spacecraft will follow the 2013 launch of the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM), which was successfully lofted by the United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V out of Space Launch Complex 3E (SLC-3E).

Landsat 8, after collecting data for 3.5 years, has already added over 827,000 images to the archive. This represents 12.5 percent of the entire 44-year Landsat data collection and each day Landsat 8 adds another ~700 new scenes.

2016-10-25-224751That satellite was also constructed by Orbital ATK, which earns a $129.9 million contract to design and fabricate the new spacecraft, integrate the mission’s two government-furnished instruments, and conduct satellite-level testing, in-orbit satellite checkout, and mission operations support.

The two NASA science instruments are OLI-2 and TIRS-2. OLI-2 is being constructed by Ball Aerospace & Technology Corp, while TIRS-2 is being developed by NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

OLI-2 (Operational Land Imager) will continue observations in the visible, near infrared, and shortwave infrared portions of the electromagnetic spectrum and includes two new spectral bands, one of which is designed to support monitoring of coastal waters and the other to detect previously hard to see cirrus clouds that can otherwise unknowingly impact the signal from the Earth’s surface in the other spectral bands.

TIRS-2 (Thermal Infrared Sensor) will collect data in two thermal bands and will thus be able to measure the temperature of the Earth’s surface, a measurement that’s vital to monitoring water consumption, especially in the arid western United States.

2016-10-26-001056Landsat 9 is based on the company’s LEOStar-3 platform, the medium-class low-Earth-orbit spacecraft successfully flown on Landsat 8 and NASA’s Fermi and Swift Gamma-ray astrophysics observatories.

This is also the platform under contract for the upcoming ICESat-2 Earth science satellite and the Joint Polar Satellite System (JPSS)-2 spacecraft. Landsat 9 will be designed, manufactured and tested by Orbital ATK’s Space Systems Group at its facilities in Gilbert, Arizona, the same location and production team that executed the Landsat 8 program.

The work on Landsat-9 will be performed at the contractor’s facilities and at the launch site at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

Orbital ATK was also responsible for the successful Landsat 4 and Landsat 5 satellites launched in 1982 and 1984.

“Orbital ATK is honored to have been selected to build the next Landsat satellite,” said Steve Krein, Vice President of Science and Environmental Programs at Orbital ATK.

“Landsat represents over four decades of imagery, providing valuable data for agriculture, global change research, emergency response, and disaster relief. We’re proud to build upon the success of our previous Landsat projects with the delivery of this new satellite.”

Since reducing the risk of a Landsat data gap is a high priority of the U.S. Sustainable Land Imaging Program, Landsat 9 will be a rebuild of Landsat 8 so it can be launched as soon as possible. Launch of the spacecraft is expected to take place in December 2020.

2016-10-25-224337While it’s expected to involve the Atlas V, no official announcement has yet been made by ULA and NASA class the launch vehicle as “TBD”. It is possible a Falcon 9 could launch the mission, pending a contract competition. The spacecraft will be launched into a near-polar, sun-synchronous at an altitude of 438 miles (705 km).

The spacecraft will extend the Landsat program’s record of land images to half a century. Landsat has provided accurate, 98-foot (30-meter) resolution, multi-spectral, global measurements of Earth’s land cover since 1972, building a freely available archive of more than six million satellite images.

With data from Landsat satellites, ecologists have tracked deforestation in South America, water managers have monitored irrigation of farmland in the American West, and researchers have watched the growth of cities worldwide.

2016-10-25-224218Landsat 9, like Landsat 8, will have a higher imaging capacity than past Landsats, allowing more valuable data to be added to the Landsat’s global land archive. The latest spacecraft in this fleet are radiometrically and geometrically better than earlier generation Landsats.

Landsat 9 is a cornerstone of our nation’s multi-satellite, multi-decadal, Sustainable Land Imaging (SLI) program. SLI is a NASA-U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) partnership to develop, launch, and operate a spaceborne system that will provide researchers and other users with high-quality, global, continuous land-imaging measurements.

These data are compatible with the 44-year Landsat record and will evolve through the introduction of new sensor and system technologies.

NASA will build, launch, and perform the initial check-out and commissioning of the satellite. USGS will operate Landsat 9 and process, archive, and freely distribute the mission’s data.

The Rapid III contract provides a rapid and flexible means to procure spacecraft in support of the scientific and technology development goals of NASA and other federal government agencies.

(Images via ULA and NASA).

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