Tim Newman, USGS

Tim Newman, the National Land Imaging Program Coordinator. Photo credit: USGS

Oct 24, 2018 • When it comes to the business of acquiring remotely sensed data, of preserving that data and providing a portal to it, National Land Imaging Program Coordinator Tim Newman is a man with a focus.

With Landsat 9 seemingly well-funded and on schedule for a December 2020 launch, Newman’s attention has turned now to getting the next Landsat in line after that right, whether it ends up being called Landsat 10 or Landsat X or whatever it may be.

That means taking a hard look at how the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) and NASA do the business of Landsat, Newman says, “and making sure we come up with a solution that can take us forward for another 20 years into the future.”

To that end, he was at the Earth Resources Observation and Science (EROS) Center in late September to check on the Critical Design Review for the Landsat 9 Ground System, but also to participate in the kickoff of an Architecture Study over the next year that will be looking at new technologies, potential new business models, and perhaps even a new look for Landsat 10.

Newman sat down to discuss all of that and more during his time at EROS. Here’s that conversation.

Landsat 10 has been referred to as Landsat X. Why?

“When you talk about Landsat missions, generally there’s a sense that Landsat is old. Like, ‘Landsat has been around for a long time. It’s your grandpa’s satellite.’ So, when we used to talk about ‘X’ as a brand, we would say, ‘Maybe we should consider calling it Landsat X as kind of a new way to see an old program. A program that’s still relevant today, and maybe flash it up a little bit with an ‘X’ designation.’ ‘X’ of course is indicative of future systems and the latest technologies. And so, as we right now started working on the Architecture Study for the next mission, we have used both terms … 10 and ‘X.’ ”

Should we view the interagency agreement signed by the Department of Interior and NASA that established the Sustainable Land Imaging program as a long-term commitment?

“Sustainable Land Imaging is there because of the government’s commitment to Landsat for decades. It’s seen as a multi-decade commitment to the Landsat program and to the series of Landsat missions. The recognition is that, there are big elements of the economy that depend on Landsat continuing for the next 20 years. And this series of one-off missions (that have characterized Landsat missions in the past) makes the climate uncertain as to whether it’s going to be there or not. The private sector has even told us, they would like to know that it’s going to be there for the long run. So that was the intent of Sustainable Land Imaging.”

Does it include some kind of ongoing mandated funding?

“On the NASA side, there is a funding line for Sustainable Land Imaging on the order of approximately $170 million a year into the out years for future Landsat missions. On the USGS side, it’s less certain. We are only funded year by year. And so, we are funded for Landsat 9 through 2020, and then at that point, there have been no commitments made institutionally for future missions officially with the budget. But there has been, unofficially within Interior, support for a Landsat 10 study, and a desire to participate on that mission going forward.”

So, after Landsat 9 launches in December 2020, do we have to go looking for more dollars for future missions?

“Well, the goal we have at the Headquarters level is that the level of funding we will achieve in 2020 will be sustained into future years. And so, as Landsat 9 development comes to an end, that the dollars that are applied to Landsat 9 development would be applied to Landsat 10 and beyond, so that we achieve a steady base of funding into future years to pay for future missions. That’s the goal.”

In 2014, NASA solicited companies to do what it called a Reduced Instrument Envelope Study for Sustainable Land Imaging. What was that about?

“The sense is, if you can reduce the size of the instrument, you can reduce the cost of the satellite, and maybe the cost of the launch. You can maybe go to a smaller launch vehicle. So, that was the driver.”

Is that something that is an option potentially for Landsat 10, or is that a mandate that we try to make future Landsat systems smaller?

“It’s not a mandate. But I think the study team is certainly going to be considering the benefits of reduced instrument sizes as they do their work. And so, they’ll be looking at all the user needs we’ve provided them, and they’ll look at these many different ways to do the space mission, and the ground mission, and try to figure out what’s the optimal way to do the mission.”

With the ongoing conversation about maintaining free and open Landsat data, is there a business model discussion with this new Architecture Study Team about other ways to bring in money?

“Absolutely. So, you’ve probably heard recently that Interior asked our Landsat Advisory Group to take a look at potential ways to recoup the cost of Landsat. And so that Landsat Advisory Group is busy drafting a paper that will probably be delivered in the December-January time frame. They’re looking at a couple of different approaches. I think two of those approaches were outlined in a paper they turned in several months ago. That’s publicly available, and you can dig it up [here]. One of those approaches would be to give the government free and open access to a degraded dataset, and then the more enhanced dataset would be available for sale. That was one way to do it. And then there are other variations of that that might be linked to how new the data is. If it’s brand new data that was just collected, there could be a price associated with that. If you wait a week, it’s free. And there may be variations that the Landsat Advisory Group is looking at right now.”

But free and open data is still an important part of that conversation, right?

“I think what we wanted to do was make sure people understood the value of the free and open data policy that we have today, that everybody understands what’s happening. And I think people have generally gotten that. We’ve been getting that response from within USGS leadership and Interior leadership, that they recognize the value of the free and open data policy as well. When the paper comes in, we’ll get a sense for what kinds of recommendations that group will make. There is an email box——where you can send your comments on what the advisory group might want to consider when they’re writing this paper. Now, that same group with different members wrote a paper back in 2012 saying how important the free and open data policy was in the first place.”

Are there possibilities for future technologies that would allow for on-satellite processing of Landsat data?

“Certainly, compute is getting smaller, faster. I know when we talk about hyperspectral imaging, the enormous amounts of data that can be compiled by space systems like that, if there’s any kind of onboard processing, you’d only have to beam down the data you need. It could be the land changes, or it could be subsets of the full dataset that you’re accumulating. So certainly, onboard processing would be desirable for that scenario.”

Is that being discussed?

“Yes. The Architecture Study Team just kicked things off, but they have a pretty wide scope, so they’ll be looking at a lot of different ways to do the mission. And, we’re not dictating to them any preferred way to do it. It’s a pretty well-rounded group. You’ve got nine folks from USGS, and nine from NASA that are on the permanent team. And then there’s another 10 or so from both agencies that are subject matter experts. So, I expect they’ll look at all of those potential ways to do the job.”

Would you expect that any potential changes in policy or technology could impact or reshape the mission of EROS?

“Certainly. I think there are core functions … that EROS has already established itself as actually doing. I think the (EROS) Calibration Center of Excellence is something, when you get to the calibration of datasets, that’s not necessarily something that the private sector wants to get into. So, I think that will always be a niche for government, and for EROS, to be engaged in. I think the archive piece, maintaining an archive and the safeguarding of that data, is something that will forever be a government function. And there probably are other functions as well. Certainly, the science … you need science in order to generate the algorithms for processing. But again, I don’t think the private sector is eager to jump into the derivation of algorithms. There will always be essential functions here at EROS, functions that need to be done.”

How about the operation of future ground systems?

“You know, potentially, that could be one of those things that the Architecture Study Team looks at and says, ‘Maybe flight operations of new satellites might not be something that is necessary in the future to be done by government.’ But again, we’ve given them a pretty broad brush. They can look at all these different aspects. Our ground system is fairly complex. We’re talking about flight operations of satellites, but you’re also talking about collecting, archiving, processing, and distributing the data. Various elements of these are already being considered to be put, say, into the commercial cloud. For example, processing could be put out into the private sector. And distribution … today, more and more distribution is being done by those folks. So, I think as we look ahead, we need to identify where should the government be involved, and make sure that we can fulfill those functions going forward.”

Based on your interactions with new USGS Director Jim Reilly, what’s your assessment of his interest in Landsat?

“He’s fascinated by Landsat, and he’s said so on several occasions … his hearing on the Hill, for example, and when he spoke to the Landsat Science Team. He talked about his passion for the first Landsat image he ever saw and how important that was to him. He has a lot of interest in future Landsat activities. So, I would say it’s probably one of his top three priorities that he’s laid out for us.”

Does he have a view on EROS?

“He hasn’t been here yet. I think he has heard about it, of course, from myself and others. I think he will be out here probably within the next six months, I would predict. I think he, like a lot of the folks from outside, don’t truly appreciate EROS until they actually come here and meet the people and understand the complexity of what you do.”

Do you view EROS as a science center or a data center?

“I actually see EROS as a science data center. I see this place as where science meets data. And you need to have both. You need to have the data to access to understand the Earth, but you also need to have the science background to make sense of it. I think over the years, with people departing and budget shortfalls and so forth, I think the science piece has been hurting here at EROS. But I see building the science back up as being a priority for EROS and for USGS going forward because it’s the science that applies the data, helps generate the algorithms, and that’s the EROS contribution to this whole enterprise. So, I see them as being co-equal. Certainly, we put a lot of budget toward the operations and data side of things. But I think we need to be equally cognizant of the value of the science.”

Is part of our Architecture Study Team work going forward looking at commercial investments in the development of future Landsat missions?

“What I’ve said is, the solution at the end of the process is probably going to be able to identify lanes for all the different players. I think the private sector has really developed in the last 5 to 10 years with the capabilities they have. So, I think there needs to be a role there in the architecture for the private sector. The international systems that we depend on now, we didn’t depend on 10 years ago, even 5 years ago. I think the Sentinel-2 program is one we need to capitalize on. So, I could see us really cementing that relationship with the Europeans to make sure that we can count on that Sentinel-2 data, with our Landsat data, going forward. And then on the ground system side, as we’ve already been moving toward commercial processing and distribution functions, I think there’s going to be a pretty significant role to play by the private sector going forward. But, all the while, there will be a continued government need for those kinds of things we’ve talked about, the science, algorithm development, data archive.”

Has the commercial sector moved far ahead of us in technological advances for remote sensing systems?

“I wouldn’t say they’ve moved far ahead of us. I think they focus on different aspects of the mission than we do. They still come to us for calibration from Landsat. They need us for orthorectification of their products. We’ve become that critical data infrastructure piece that the private sector needs to have there, into the future, that they can build their own products on and their business cases on. So, I think it’s important that we sustain what we’re doing today for the private sector.”

Do you think Landsat 10 will look vastly different from Landsats 8 and 9?

“I think it will look different. Now vastly different, I don’t know if I can say that. Again, I kind of look at the calibration aspect of it, and to have a highly calibrated system requires a bigger satellite than a cubesat. So, I don’t see us, and this is just my take on it, and again the AST is going to have to weigh in on this, but I guess I don’t see us shrinking down to a microsat and still be able to deliver the calibration that’s needed across the community. Now that said, I don’t think we’re going to be as big as we are today. I think there are going to be some changes there. Maybe it’s disaggregated set of satellites. Maybe we have one bigger one and one smaller one. I’m really looking forward to the Architecture Study Team’s assessment and what they develop and deliver over the next nine months.”

Any last thoughts?

“I guess I would just close by saying, I’m always impressed when I come here (to EROS) with the caliber of the people and the attitude the people have here, the can-do spirit. You have an enormous wealth of talent here, both on the government side and on the contractor staff side. That team is really precious. You guys have done a helluva lot of good work over the past decades, and we’re striving to continue this into the decades to come.”