UND and NASA celebrate 40 years of LANDSAT – the pioneer to Google Maps

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News Article

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College of Arts & Sciences


If you've used Google Maps, you're not far from Landsat, the granddaddy of all Earth-observing satellites that changed the way we view the home planet.

NASA and the Interior Department this week marked the 40th anniversary of the Landsat program. The first Landsat satellite was launched July 23, 1972, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.

"I was in high school when the U.S. government started planning Landsat in the 1960s—it's a truly revolutionary system that established by far the longest track record of any remote sensing satellite system," said Santhosh Seelan, professor and chair of University of North Dakota Space Studies and former head of a satellite data agency in India. "That 40-year historical record of observations is what makes Landsat so valuable."

It's been a key teaching tool all along, and now is integral in geography education. Landsat images are the heart of college-level remote sensing classes, including those taught at UND.

"For us there's an important community component to Landsat," said Douglas Munski, professor of Geography. "We use Landsat, among other tools, to help elementary and secondary geography teachers develop lesson plans. We also do outreach using this important tool with regional 4H groups and with Boy Scout and Girl Scout groups. Children now become familiar with such tools early in their education. The fact is, without Landsat, we would not have Google Maps and Streetview."

For Brad Rundquist, professor and chair of Geography at UND, Landsat is a vital piece of geographic education.

"It was the first generally available Earth-observing satellite, the first public-use remote sensing system," said Rundquist, a remote sensing expert. "It's a marvelous system because each Landsat image contains many layers of information, and it's been gathering that information for 40 years, so we can accurately track both natural and man-made changes."

In a press release about the 40-year anniversary of Landsat, NASA Administrator Charles Bolden said, "Landsat has given us a critical perspective on our planet over the long term and will continue to help us understand the big picture of Earth and its changes from space. With this view we are better prepared to take action on the ground and be better stewards of our home."

Rundquist personally uses Landsat imagery to monitor land cover change, monitor grassland changes to check out the advance of invasive plant species.

"Invasive species in particular are a big deal for North Dakota," Rundquist said. "I've been involved in work with the U.S. Geological Survey and NASA to map leafy spurge in western North Dakota, and, more recently with the salt cedar invasion Missouri basin. We've also used Landsat extensively to track the flooding in the Devils Lake basin and the significant growth in wetlands in the region."