Landsat 5 saved?for now

Data orders from USDA and others will keep the satellite aloft for several more months

Landsat 5, an Earth observation satellite scheduled for decommissioning June 30, has been spared for at least several months, officials at the U.S. Geological Survey announced.

Thanks to several large orders of Landsat imagery from the Agriculture Department, NASA and other agencies, as well as universities and private users, Landsat 5 can continue to provide data for the time being.

Landsat 5, launched in 1984, has lasted well past its intended two-year life span, and its durability has provided an unexpected boon to land imagery users. Working in tandem with Landsat 7, launched in 1999, the satellites can cover the entire Earth in eight days. Landsat 6 failed to reach orbit during its launch in 1993.

Ray Byrnes, USGS liaison for satellite programs, said dozens of users expressed concern about shutting down Landsat 5. USDA, which uses Landsat data to monitor crop growth worldwide, was particularly concerned about losing the eight-day coverage. The department led the effort to buy data, which will provide close to the $750,000 USGS needs to keep Landsat 5 flying for the rest of fiscal 2001, which ends Sept. 30.

"It's a prepayment," Byrnes said. "We're using the funding upfront to keep things going."

In May, USGS announced that Landsat 5 would be decommissioned because Space Imaging Inc., its commercial operator, had notified USGS that it could no longer run it profitably. Under the operating arrangement, Space Imaging managed the satellite for free but held marketing rights to the data it produced.

The marketing rights expired July 1, and now Landsat 5 data is available for unrestricted use, according to USGS. Landsat 7 is operated by USGS.

Because Landsat 5 was commercially operated, Congress provided no funding for it in fiscal 2001. Landsat 5 funding wasn't included in the fiscal 2002 budget request, either, so Congress will have to add that money during budget negotiations, Byrnes said.

"Ideally, what we need is an appropriation from Congress to pay for the operation."

Although Congress' plans are unclear at this point, Byrnes said he's optimistic that Landsat 5 will continue flying.

"So far, things are looking a lot brighter than they were," he said.

A USGS effort under way aims to launch a successor to Landsat 7 that's designed and built by the private sector. USGS and NASA officials involved in the Landsat Data Continuity Mission—born out of 1992 legislation directing USGS to involve the private sector in Landsat development—hope to have the next satellite flying by 2005.

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