Landsat Launch A Space-Age Spectacle

Tuesday, February 26, 2013
Spectators watch the slow initial ascent of Landsat 8. Photo courtesy Thilo Kranz | DLR

Spectators watch the slow initial ascent of Landsat 8. Photo courtesy Thilo Kranz | DLR

Roger Eckart

Eye Space Correspondent

VANDENBERG AFB – The LDCM/Landsat 8 satellite was launched Monday, Feb. 11 at 10:02 a.m. from Vandenberg Air Force Base. Actinic blue skies, teal ocean and a gleaming Atlas V sits on the launch pad at SLC 3 (“Slick 3”), or Space Launch Complex 3, at Vandenberg Air Force Base near Lompoc. The perfect day for a rocket launch.

Roger at launch pad

Eye Space Correspondent Roger Eckart at the launch pad.

Media representatives, NASA and Air Force personnel  all mingled with growing anticipation on a hillside four miles across the valley. This is not the closest viewing spot, but it surely has the best view. The launch pad was off in the distance with the gleaming rocket surrounded by its billowing white vapors, the calm Pacific providing a flat expanse with perfect breakers meeting the shore. On the curving road below, many cars from base staffers and families gathered for a ringside view of the launch of NASA’s LDCM.

NASA is notorious for its frequent endless use of acronyms and numbers to identify its launches and satellites. LDCM, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission, will become Landsat 8 after its 100-day checkout period when it is turned over to USGS for management and dissemination of data. The rocket booster is designated Atlas V-401 by its builder, the United Launch Alliance, an LLC of Boeing and Lockheed Martin. The numbers indicate that this rocket has a four-meter fairing protecting the LDCM from the rigors of launch, the zero indicates that there are no strap-on solid rocket boosters (SRBs) and that the second stage Centaur is powered by a single engine, two are possible, depending on the payload.

With the LDCM/Landsat 8 mission, a 40-plus year archive of Earth’s surface images will continue to be available as open source data with access by anyone with an Internet connection. Currently viewed and used in 189 countries, the archive is truly a global resource.

Prior to 2008, images were pricey and accessed at a rate of about 20,000 per year. Since, it is offered open source and the use has grown to three-plus million and is expected to continue to climb with the improved imaging available on Landsat 8.

Arcata, 1999. Landsat image

Arcata, 1999. Landsat image

Arcata, 2009. Landsat image

Arcata, 2009. Landsat image

Landsat 8 will join Landsat 7 to provide an image of a single spot on the surface of the Earth every eight days. With an optical resolution on the order of 100 feet – the size of a baseball infield – you will not be able to see your house, but you will be able to view larger scales and, as importantly, changes over time. This image archive dates back to the original Landsat 1, launched in 1972.

ULA launch audio feed gives only rough minutes to countdown. The usual 10, 9, 8, 7… is missing. You might miss the actual ignition and liftoff if your eyes are not focused on Slick 3, because the sound does not arrive for another 24 seconds and by that time, the Atlas V/LDCM is already 1,000 feet in the air and accelerating rapidly.

As with all launches, viewed directly it is the arrival of the sound that brings the strong visceral response. It is loud. It gets louder, and louder still. You feel it internally. An exciting emotional experience, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, a former four-time Space Shuttle astronaut described his feeling as “giddy.”

If not gut wrenching, it definitely is gut shaking. A perfect launch for a perfect day.

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