February 11, 2013

A Beautiful Line of Scientific Research Continues as Landsat 8 Launches

by Christine Hoekenga

And liftoff!  At 10:02 a.m. Pacific Standard Time today, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, a collaboration between NASA and the USGS, launched the eighth satellite in service of a scientific mission that dates back more than 40 years. Since 1972, satellites in the Landsat series have been circling the Earth, recording data that helps scientists visualize our blue planet and the changes taking place on its surface over time.

Satellite images of urban growth in Jakarta, Indonesia

A series of satellite images showing the urbanization of the area surrounding Jakarta, Indonesia. Vegetation, which reflects infrared light very strongly, appears red, and urban areas appear light green. In 1976 (left), the city had 6 million people. In 1989 (middle), it had 9 million people, and by 2004 (right) the population was 13 million. Image courtesy: NASA

The satellite launched today, referred to as Landsat 8, will record data in both the visible light spectrum (the part of the electromagnetic spectrum humans can see) and the infrared spectrum (longer wavelengths that the human eye cannot see unaided).  This data will be beamed back to scientists at the USGS’s Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center and, among other things, converted to images that show what’s happening on the Earth’s surface.  Including the infrared portion of the spectrum allows researchers to study features and changes (such as water use on farm fields) that would not be obvious in simple photographs or in satellite images created with just visible light.  Past Landsat satellites have collected data in both spectra as well, but Landsat 8’s focused sensors will be able to provide higher resolution images than the sweeping sensors on even its most recent predecessor, Landsat 7 (which is still in orbit).

The images produced with Landsat data are used to visualize and track changes in land use and natural resources, such as melting glaciers, urbanization, deforestation, and changes to farm land. They are freely available to researchers and to the public—an incomparable dataset that allows for long-term, large-scale comparisons. They also tell a fascinating and beautiful visual story of our planet’s surface, past and present.  Here are just a few of the thousands of images created using Landsat data.

Read about the Electromagnetic Spectrum in our module Light II: Electromagnetism.

Watch NASA’s video overview of the Landsat Data Continuity Mission and read about how Landsat images are created (pdf).

Visit the USGS’s Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center to view beautiful satellite images in the Earth as Art series.

See other ways that scientists visualize data to help with their research in our module Using Graphs and Visual Data.


Christine Hoekenga

Written by

Christine is a freelance writer, editor, and content strategist, specializing in science and nature. She holds an Bachelor's degree in Environmental Science and Media Studies and a Master's of Science Writing. She has been working in science communication and education for nearly a decade as a journalist, an organizer for conservation groups, and a museum educator. Before joining the Visionlearning team, she served as the New Media and Online Community Manager for the Webby award-winning Smithsonian Ocean Portal. Christine is assisting Visionlearning with developing new modules and glossary terms, managing the blog, and outreach through social media.