NASA launches powerful Landsat 9 satellite to monitor climate change, forest cover and more

NASA's latest Earth-observing satellite has reached space.
Landsat 9 is the new spacecraft that will extend the 50-year-long continuous record of global imagery created by the Landsat satellite family since 1972.

Landsat 9 was launched from Vandenberg Space Force Base, California at 2:12 p.m. (11:12 EST and 1812 GMT) marking the installation's 2,000th launch ever since 1958. About 80 minutes after liftoff, the spacecraft was released from its rocket ride.

The 30th Space Delta weather forecasters predicted favorable conditions for liftoff. Mother Nature didn't disappoint, though the Atlas V disappeared quickly into a thick, obscured marine layer, which is a common feature on the Central California coast around this time of the year.

Today's launch was originally planned for September 16. Due to high demand for liquid oxygen, the launch was postponed by a week. NASA officials stated that Vandenberg's liquid nitrogen delivery company was retasked with hauling more medical liquid oxygen, which affected the Landsat 9 launch timeline. Weather concerns caused the launch to be delayed a few days more.

Photos: Earth photos from space: Landsat satellite legacy

Vandenberg Space Force Base, California, September 27, 2021: A United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket carrying Landsat 9 Earth-observation Satellite launches with the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. NASA TV image credit

Landsat 9

NASA was responsible for building and launching Landsat 9. However, the United States Geological Survey will manage the satellite and process its data.

This mission, which will cost approximately $750 million, is ninth in the Landsat Program. It will continue the program’s role of monitoring land resources and managing them. Landsat 9 will replace Landsat 7, which has been orbiting since 1999. It will also work in tandem to Landsat 8, which was launched in 2013. The duo will jointly image the entire Earth eight times per day.

Landsat 9 will eventually settle in an orbit that takes the satellite over the planet's poles at an altitude approximately 438 miles (705 km). Two scientific instruments are carried by the satellite, the Operational Land Imager 2 and the Thermal Infrared Sensor 2; these instruments can detect tiny changes in the world’s lakes and rivers through analysis of light reflected from the earth in multiple wavelengths.

Landsat, according to mission scientists is the most economic Earth science program. Landsat 8 (and Landsat 9), which work together, will track urban sprawl, forest cover, and the retreat glaciers, among many other features and phenomena.

Karen St. Germain, the head of NASA's Earth Science Division said that Landsat provides information about Earth's vegetation, land use and surface water. This mission, when combined with other Earth science missions can reveal what is happening and why.

"We have compiled an incredible history of how the planet changed over the past half century," said Jeff Masek (NASA's Landsat 9 project scientist).

Masek stated that "For example, it's possible to see natural disturbances (such as fires, hurricanes and insect outbreaks) and then the long-term recovery that takes place of ecosystems for decades afterwards."

Since 1972, the Landsat satellite family has been providing continuous data records of the planet's ecosystems to researchers all over the world.

These data were made public in 2008, and are an invaluable resource for monitoring the climate change.

Malek stated that "we're able specifically to look at climate and climate-change effects on ecosystems." "We have mapped areas with increased plant cover at high altitudes because of a warmer climate. We have also observed areas of vegetation loss in semi-arid, water-limited environments.

Related: Earth is getting hotter than ever. What's next?

Mighty Atlas V

Today's launch was the 145th flight by an Atlas V rocket to date, and the 88th flight for NASA. ULA had announced in August that it only had 29 Atlas V rockets remaining in its fleet, and that all of these launch vehicles have already completed confirmed missions.

Today's flight was in the 401 configuration of the Atlas V. This means that the Landsat 9 satellite was placed in a 13-foot (4 meter) payload fairing. The rocket used a Centaur upper stage with no solid rocket boosters to propel it into space.

Four tiny cubesats joined Landsat 9 today for the ride. They will launch from the launcher once Landsat 9 is in space. They will conduct a range of science investigations including measurements of the sun's ultraviolet light and solar wind.

Atlas V will launch another important science mission next. The Lucy spacecraft will launch on Oct. 16 from a different Atlas V rocket. It will be heading to the asteroid belt to study several Trojan asteroids and help scientists better understand the formation of planets.

Lucy's rocket ride was originally intended to transport Boeing's Starliner spacecraft into space in August. Starliner had to be returned to the factory because several valves in its propulsion systems were jammed. This valve problem has caused Starliner to delay its uncrewed test flight at the International Space Station by a significant amount, possibly until next year.

ULA teams had to reconfigure rocket in order to make it ready for Lucy next month. This is because Lucy will use a Centaur single-engine engine, while Starliner needs a dual-engine Centaur upperstage.

Vandenberg will host the launch of another Atlas V rocket: The launch by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Joint Polar Satellite System 2 satellite, is scheduled for September.

ULA is preparing for the launch of the Vulcan Centaur, its next rocket. Vulcan, which is designed to replace the Atlas V rocket, will be available sometime in 2022.

Record-breaking mission

Today's flight was the 2,000th Vandenberg launch since 1958. It was the 300th Atlas launch. This includes all versions of the vehicle and not just the Atlas V.

The first launch was Dec. 16, 1958. It carried a Thor missile. A Thor/Agena followed in 1959. Discover 1 was the first polar-orbiting satellite.

Vandenberg is primarily used for polar launches which target high-inclination orbits. These orbits are ideal for both communications and satellites that observe the Earth.

ULA will reconfigure Vandenberg's launch pad (SLC-3E), following the West Coast Atlas V final launch next year. This will allow ULA to launch its Vulcan Centaur rocket.

Editor's Note: This story was updated at 3.35 p.m. ET (1935 GMT), with the news about Landsat 9's successful deployment.

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