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Remote Sensing Data From the USGS: the latest developments
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Leslie Gordon: Thank you for joining us. My name is Leslie Gordon. And it is my great pleasure to introduce a guest speaker today. Ron Beck is a program information specialist with the USGS Land Remote Sensing Program. And his primary responsibility is to work with sister federal agencies, especially NASA as the USGS prepares for the next generation of earth observing satellites.

Ron has been with the USGS since 1974. He was a contractor at the USGS EROS Data Center at Sioux Falls, South Dakota. And from 74 through 2005, he held a number of positions at EROS Center, working for various contractors and for the USGS. He is now a USGS civil servant. In June 2005, he actually transferred to our headquarters office in Reston, Virginia to work on policy and communication issues for satellite programs.


In November 2007, Ron returned to Sioux Falls to the EROS Center as a point of contact for headquarters for satellite imagery and information issues. And Ron is in town here in the Bay Area because hes been attending the science team planning workshops with NASA. And hes good enough to take time out before he returns home just to come here to Menlo Park and to share his information about Landsat, another satellite earth observing systems.

So, it is my great pleasure to introduce Ron Beck, talking about USGS satellite data update. Thank you.

Ron Beck: Thank you Leslie. For those who are catching us online, we were going to sit out in the parking area in soak in some rays today but we thought the glare from the projector would be too tough. Its beautiful here today, if youre a duck. What Im going to do today is kind of bring you up to date on where we are with some of our satellite programs and what were planning on the future. And at Leslies request, Ill end the talk by saying a few things about what the USGS and other agencies are doing for the Haitian earthquake relief organizations. So, Ill get started.


First thing, just a quick summary of what were going to do, as Leslie mentioned this last week, we had the Landsat science team meeting down at Mountain View, California and we spent three days hashing over where Landsat is, where it should be and what the plans are for the future. Last night I updated my talk a bit to include some of that. So, lets get started.

There have been a number of questions about the no cost data available from the US Geological Survey and that has been an experiment we tried. Its been an outstanding success. We started with some aerial photography, put it on a server and download, at no cost to the user community.


And a little over 18 months ago, we added the Landsat data archive to that and weve continue that, all as a precursor to our next satellite system which from the beginning we decided would be no cost, easily downloadable product. And Ill say how successful thats been in just a moment.

I would point out that we have a handout at the back of the room for later that lists all of the data available at no cost. And the list is quite extensive. It includes some of the commercial data thats available at restricted basis, DLGs, DMs that sort of thing. Aerial photography as well as our Landsat satellite data.


Weve got a number of commercial sector datasets that we been able to put on our server and are available for download as well.

Breaking news, the French SPOT satellite system coverage over the US from 86 to 98 is now available as a no cost download. And weve sign an agreement that were buying some current French SPOT satellite data and will make that available as well.

Now to get those data, you have to register. But its a simple process. And if youre tied to a federal agency or local or state government, theres no problem getting access to those data. We dont have full coverage yet. Our goal is coverage over the North America and in particularly over the corners. Well be providing that data later this year. And were getting fragments of it as we speak.


Now, why would we do all that? Our objective is to give you the full package, satellite imagery available over any part of the world eventually. And get it to you in a convenient, efficient, no cost process.

Now, just to give you a sense of scale, Landsat data, when we sold the Landsat scenes and Mitch weve gone through all kinds of gyrations as you know on how much the data would cost, how to get it, whether the commercial sector was providing it, whether the US government was providing it, over the years, its been quite a raise.

Now, we have total rights to the Landsat data. Were making it available at no cost. When we charge for the data, in our biggest data sales year, we sold 25,000 scenes. Pretty impressive number. OK?


Since October 2008, two million scenes have been downloaded. And as of yesterday, for instance, I checked the figures last night, yesterday 34,584 scenes were downloaded. So, somebody is getting the data. We know who some of them are. A number of foreign governments are building their own satellite archive and so theyre downloading a lot of data and a firm right down the line from here, Google, downloaded 11,000 scenes yesterday.

Now, were happy about that because Google is making those data available on their servers to an expanded clientele. So, that fits with our business plan. Our business plan is to get the data into the hands of the user community and it seems to be working.


Thats part one. Part two, I promise Leslie an update on where we are with our satellites. In Landsat 5, we cant kill it. It was launched in March 1 of 1984 with a design life of three years. We dont want to kill it either, by the way. Weve had problems, design life of three years, 1984. The thing is still working. And its providing pretty good coverage over the continental United States.

In December, well, let me back up a bit. In 1987, the 'twida', technical term, its a system on board the satellite that sends the data down to the receiving station. The sensor collects data and a different system sends it down to the receiving station.

That traveling wave tube amplifier failed in 1987 and we had to shut it off and we went to the backup. The backup worked fine until December 18, 2009 and it failed. And Im telling you that NASA and USGS scientist and engineers were saying, Now, what do we do?


And a couple of them said, Lets go back to that primary. We know more about the systems now than we did in 87, maybe we can revive it. And its comparable to someone saying, Hey, you know that Buick La Salle that we put in the garage in 1987? Lets go out and see if we can get it started again.

And Im telling you, Ive been in the satellite business for over 30 years and one of the most exciting days Ive had was watching when we turn on that primary system and the pass came over and it was dark at first and suddenly we had a really clear image. And the primary system is back operating and were collecting data on a regular basis.

This happens to be the first scene we collected. Not a particularly tropical area. Its more central Nebraska, North Platte and South Platte and McCook, Nebraska. And that white stuff you see, we have a term for that in the Midwest, its called snow. We have a lot of that right now.


So, the good news is Landsat 5 is up and operating again. Were collecting data and distributing it to the users around the country. Landsat 7 launched in April 15 1999, design life of five years. A system on board it that compensates for the forward motion of the satellite failed in 2003. And some of you have seen the Landsat 7 data with those Venetian blind like bands across the edges of it. We cant fix that. We still have that. But the central part of the satellite image is perfectly fine and were collecting very good data including data over Port-au-Prince, Haiti.


OK. So, thats the two satellites weve got operating. What comes next? The Landsat data continuity mission. Been a lot of discussion over whether or not were going to continue the Landsat series. Keep in mind we started in 72. Weve been collecting data on a regular basis since then. And theres been a strong sense that we need to continue to collect satellite data with a Landsat like vehicle. And one is being built.

A lot of discussions have gone on and our target date right now is December 2012. And were anticipating Landsat 5 and 7 will hang on till then. We have enough fuel on board them to last through 2012. Its a matter of electronics or some of the other sensor packages failing and we cant totally control that as you will know.


Now, just as a footnote, Ive been asked, Landsat 5 is launched in 84 and it still has fuel on board? Thats really good thinking that you anticipated that it last that long. Well, in fact, Landsat 5 was designed in case a problem developed that they could change the orbit and have it captured by the shuttle mission and maybe repaired by the shuttle people or bring it back down. So, they put extra fuel on board. We never did use the shuttle mission but weve got fuel and that has been a real godsend for us.

The Landsat data continuity mission, thats why we set up the program for no cost download. From the beginning, we said, Weve got to get those data into the hands of the user community as efficiently as possible. And so, we started that experiment with free downloads.

Well get global coverage with LDCM or Landsat aid, if you will. And were going to actually get increased coverage by expanding the number of scenes collected per day from 250 to 400. The data characteristics will be very similar to Landsats 5 and 7. Continuity is terribly important. It will have a very limited off-nadir capability if there's something dramatic that needs to be examined. OK?

There's the primary instrument aboard. Don't ask me a lot of details about it. I did sit through engineering discussions this week. I sat there and I paid careful attention, but basically this system is being constructed now, going through testing. Engineering experiments with it. Everything looks very good right now. All indications are that we will hit either a late 2012 launch or early 2013 launch. OK?


Now, there is a group called the Landsat Science team. It is a group of about 20 ladies and gentlemen who use the Landsat data, who have the foresight to suggest what we ought to do in the future. And we met this last week. I'm not going to say a great deal about them other than I would encourage you to look at their site--and then there's a special reference to the Landsat Science team.

These are the people who are applying Landsat technology to various problems, testing different methods for improving the data. For instance, there were long discussions this week over cloud cover compensation packages that could be prepared, and a lot of that is going to be online and from this meeting this week in the next 10 days.


But I would offer two key questions. Two key issues came up this week. The European Space Agency is going ahead with plans to build their own satellite, Sentinel system, for launch in 2012 or 2013 as well. It will be complementary to the Landsat system, many of the same data characteristics. And a critical decision has been made that they will share that data on a free and open basis. So that's going to give the science community access to an even broader set of data.

And the sticky issue came up this week. OK, we launch in 2008. Hopefully everything goes well. Do we have a backup? And Landsats 1, 2 and 3 were launched. Basically, three different satellites were built at the same time, or sensor packages, so that should there be a problem, they could gear up for launching another one within a year or two.


Landsats 4 and 5? Same thing. They are, in effect, two satellites constructed roughly the same time. And 6 and 7? Same thing. Boy, did that pay off, because Landsat 6 went in the drink. It failed to achieve orbit. It's doing shoreline studies off the Indian Ocean somewhere. We don't know exactly where. And so in a fairly short time, we were able to launch Landsat 7.

Now 8, unfortunately, is a one-off. We don't have one as a backup under construction, and the science community is quite concerned about that and they're quite vocal about their concern. And that vocal concern will be expressed to management organizations and to congressional budget people so that perhaps, perhaps, something could be done.


Now, Leslie asked me to say a few words about disaster response because, OK, we collect all this satellite data--to what end? Our job is to collect it, distribute it, package it, if you will, and get it into the hands of the science community. We also do some analytical work to be sure, but the main thrust of that comes from others.

We are partners in an international charter organization. It's an organization composed of about 20 different countries, all of whom have their own satellite systems. Some of them high resolution, some of them very gross resolution satellite systems. And the value of this organization is that when a disaster strikes, we bring all their data sets together to a common area and we distribute those data to the host countries or the relief agencies, whatever it may be who needs them.


I would encourage you to check the website I checked it earlier this morning, looking for an update on what they're doing with Haiti earlier in the week. They had a French spot satellite image over Port-au-Prince with road network superimposed on it so that relief agencies could tell where the roads should be, where the pockets of populations were so they could get supplies up to them.

Disaster response agencies provide those data. And it's not just government agencies. Some of the private sector organizations, some of the military sector are providing data as well. We've been doing this for about 15 years and it has worked remarkably well.


I've checked this morning and guess what? Haiti's not on their front page anymore. Now there are massive flooding in the Gaza Strip. And so the charter organization is continuing to collect data over Haiti, providing those data, but a new crisis has developed and they're working on that as well.

How is that significant? Well, if you look at what the USGS provides, initially, it would be Landsat data. And this is a Landsat image acquired in November of this year prior to the earthquake, and Port-au-Prince is that purple area in the lower right corner of the bay.

Well, with Landsat data, you probably won't see the kind of detail that relief agencies need initially. You can look at large landforms. You can see the fault structure running east and west out of Port-au-Prince. That's significant.


But the initial concern is, where are the people? How many buildings are destroyed? What happened to the road networks? Are rivers being dammed up because of landslides that could create other hazards? Landsat data over a long term would be very useful for that.

So we're taking a two-pronged approach: there is a short-term where primarily other agencies are providing data, and the long-term, where Landsat will look at landform changes, seacoast changes, that sort of thing. Vegetation. Where are the landslides happening? Has the vegetation patterns changed? Landsat will be very useful for that.

However, more immediately, here is an example from DigitalGlobe, a commercial firm that provided data. And if you look at this scene, you see a large soccer stadium right in the middle of the scene. This was acquired about a month ago. OK? Soccer field is open, and off to its left, you can see a number of buildings.


DigitalGlobe provided data the day after the earthquake. Now look at the area. The buildings to the left are primarily rubble. And notice those light patterns of the soccer stadium. Those are people. They want to be out in the open, away from the buildings, after the earthquake.

And relief agencies will take these data, these scenes, and in this rather dramatic example, say, all right, get food, medicine, supplies, water, whatever it needs to those people in that soccer stadium, and use that as a central point for spreading out the relief supplies and helping people.

That's the kind of thing that's being done with this international charter, of which we are a firm partner: to provide the kind of data needed to provide relief to the Haitians.


And we're doing this for all kinds of problems. The Gaza Strip flooding this morning. Hurricane Katrina, the consortium brought lots of data into play on that. California wildfires, another example.

OK. I buzzed through a lot of things this morning. I'd like to end by mentioning some of the resources available. And I have a hard copy of this particular slide, so if you want to check some of the websites on how to get access to Landsat data and the aerial photography, that's available. And even the commercial sectored data that we have available, you can do that through one of these websites.

I would point out the next-to-the-bottom one. If you haven't seen Earth Now, someday when you have some time, go to that website, but plan on some time.


Initially, we started by--you know, our main receiving station is at Sioux Falls, and in our missions operation center, we needed to monitor the health of the satellite on a pretty regular basis. So we had a system that converted the digital files to a running scene as the satellite flew over the range of our main station in Sioux Falls. And so you can, in effect, see the view from the satellite almost instantly.

And if you go to Earth Now, you can see there a live or recorded pass of the Landsat satellite, either 5 or 7, when it flies over the lower 48 states within range of the Sioux Falls antenna. But I'm warning you: plan some time. It's hypnotic as can be. OK?

I looked at a pass yesterday over California. It's fascinating. Nothing but gray, you know? And I wanted to send that to my wife because she thinks I'm out here sunbathing or something.



OK. I'm sorry, I went through an awful lot in half an hour. If you have some questions, I'll try to answer them. OK?


Moderator: If anybody has any questions, I can pass along the mike if you'd like.

Ron Beck: If there are no questions, I was either so clear or so obscure. Yes?

Audience 1: Yeah, the new Landsat that's going out--what is the resolution per pixel in centimeters?

Ron Beck: It will be 30-meter resolution again, with a 15-meter panchromatic band as well.

Audience 1: OK.

Ron Beck: The European Space Agency Sentinel satellite, they are talking about one band combination that's 10 meters.

Audience 1: OK.

Ron Beck: Yes?

Audience 2: Thanks, Ron. Great talk. Can you say something about the IKONOS data that are becoming available?


Ron Beck: Yeah. IKONOS data, commercial data, a limited amount will be available primarily over U.S. locations. And I don't have a full range of how much is available, but if you go to, you can get at the IKONOS Identifier and see if data over your area, if you are interested. The big one, let me remind you, is that French spot satellite data. We are eventually going to have the capability to collect those data at Sioux Falls and distribute it.

Audience 3: Is that literally 30 meters or is it actually one arc second?

Ron Beck: You know, I sat through a two-hour discussion on that this week, and this side of the room said it's exactly 30 meters. This side of the room said no, it isn't. I don't know. I won't try to bluff you on that one.


Audience 4: I have a question about the aerial photography archive.

Ron Beck: Yeah.

Audience 4: Is there a search engine that's location-based that really accesses your full historical aerial photo archive? Because I know you guys have a really rich, broad...

Ron Beck: Yes, and no. See, I'm a bureaucrat. We're supposed to answer questions like that.

However, we have something like 12 million scenes of aerial photography going back to the 1930s. Not all of it has been digitized yet. We're working on that, and a great deal have been digitized. But what we're doing now is if you go into Earth Explorer and you see a scene identification, but it's not available in digital form, we will do that for you, and then add it to our massive archive of digital photography. We'd like to have it all done now, but it's labor-intensive as can be.


Audience 5: Is that the priority or is it on a need-to-know basis ?

Ron Beck: Not really. I don't know how they established the priority. Mr. Wayne Miller at the US Geological Survey could answer that question.

Audience 6: I have two questions.

Ron Beck: Yeah.

Audience 6: One of them is technical and the other one is political. The technical one for the spot and IKONOS imagery and the like. Is that orthorectified or as captured? And then the second question, the political one, is how robust, shall we say, will the funding be for free data acquisition or distribution?

Ron Beck: I don't want to answer either one. Orthorectified--the French spot data will be orthorectified. As to the funding issue, we're on track right now with full support.


And let me tell you, the administration in Congress have put a sharp pencil to it, and they've said, "Because money's tight." I mean, you know, pick up a paper. "Can you justify what you're trying to do?" And we look forward to that kind of challenge.

And every time we've confronted them, we said, "Yeah, here's how these data are being used. Here is the plan." To a staff person, they've said, "OK. That's what we want to know. We'll support it." As much as we want, maybe not. But strong support. Very strong support.

And that feels good. I'm going to tell you, I've been in this racket for over 30 years, and it's an exciting time. It's a good time. Sure, we all have our complaints about work, but it's lively. We've got some good management in the satellite program and aggressive managers who are going out for the funds.


And we're getting strong backing from our sister agencies. NASA will build the satellite, but they don't want to run it. And we've proven that we can run it well and we can handle the data. And so that's why all these other countries--the French are saying, yeah, they're going to distribute data as well, but they've got confidence that the USGS can do the job very well. It's fun to be part of that. I shouldn't have said that probably. Yes?

Audience 7: Hi. You mentioned that there is a complementarity to the Sentinel system and also the Landsat 8, and I'm curious if there's been discussions about the temporal complementarity. So, there's big lags in Landsat, and is it being considered very seriously? And if not, is there some route that scientists can sort of push for there to be more frequency with both of those satellites working in conjunction?


Ron Beck: The last part I'm not sure how to answer exactly, but the first part, yes, the US Geological Survey and NASA are very sensitive to the temporal challenges, shall we say, and how to deal with that. There will be additional complementary systems that perhaps will help. We're very much aware of it.

If you have strong feelings on it, I would recommend you write a letter or an email to Dr. Bruce Quirk at USGS Headquarters in Reston. He's the bleeding edge of the Landsat program right now. And he's looking for input. No promises. Bruce, smart enough to know that you can't promise all these things, but issues that you have with the Landsat data access, let Bruce know. OK?


Moderator: If there are no more questions, I want to thank all of you for joining us this afternoon here in Menlo Park, and online. We know there's a lot of folks joining us online watching this live. And thank you, Ron Beck.

Ron Beck: Sure!

Moderator: It was delightful, and I appreciate your time coming to visit us.

Ron Beck: Happy to be here.

Moderator: Thank you. And don't forget there's handouts on the table.



Title: Remote Sensing Data From the USGS: the latest developments


Topics covered in this video include:

  • Expanding access to free aerial photography and satellite data
  • Status of Landsat Satellites 5 and 7
  • Plans for the next series of satellites
  • News from the USGS and NASA Landsat Science team

Full transcript will be available soon.

Location: Menlo Park, CA, USA

Date Taken: 1/27/2010

Length: 0:00

Video Producer: Amelia Barrales , U.S. Geological Survey

Note: This video has been released into the public domain by the U.S. Geological Survey for use in its entirety. Some videos may contain pieces of copyrighted material. If you wish to use a portion of the video for any purpose, other than for resharing/reposting the video in its entirety, please contact the Video Producer/Videographer listed with this video. Please refer to the USGS Copyright section for how to credit this video.

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