McMurdo Ground station supports new Landsat 9 satellite | Polarjournal
NASA’s McMurdo ground station towers over the research station in Antarctica’s McMurdo Sound and is essential for communicating with various satellites. Photo: Joshua Swanson

Climate researchers and other scientists as well as decision-makers will be able to access even more accurate satellite images of the Earth’s surface starting in early January, helping them better monitor and assess parameters such as glacier and ice shelf retreat, water use, deforestation and others. The new satellite designed to provide these data is Landsat 9, which was successfully launched Sept. 27 from Vandenberg Space Force Base in California. Since its launch, the satellite has been supported by the U.S. National Science Foundation at the U.S. McMurdo Ground station in Antarctica. Numerous contacts were made during the launch and orbit phases to ensure the successful deployment of the satellite and the start of satellite operations.

The Landsat project has a long history: Almost 50 years ago, the first satellite of its kind was stationed in space. Since then, Landsat satellites have provided important data on land cover change and land use. The latest Landsat 9 is considered the twin of Landsat 8 with some technical improvements to the infrared imager and the thermal infrared sensor. Both satellites can each image the entire surface of the Earth every 16 days, and will now be positioned in their orbits so that a complete image of the Earth is available every eight days.

According to NASA, Landsat 9 will measure changes on the global land surface even more accurately, making it possible to distinguish human and natural causes of change and better assess the availability of resources such as water. Since the Landsat mission began in 1972, the satellites have also provided valuable data on 98 percent of Earth’s glaciers and ice shelves, whose regular monitoring will become even more important as climate change progresses.

The McMurdo ground station became operational in January 1996. Photo: Robyn Waserman

In addition, Landsat 9 will continue to provide data on tropical deforestation and global forest dynamics, urban expansion, coral reef destruction, natural and man-made disasters, and the effects of climate change on the Earth’s surface and biology.

NASA’s McMurdo ground station, located on a hill above the research station on Ross Island in McMurdo Sound, plays a central role in communications with Landsat and other satellites. The so-called radome, which from a distance resembles a giant golf ball, houses a ten-meter-high satellite dish that collects data from satellites in Earth orbit that pass over the station.

Landsat 9 is designed to operate for at least five years, although scientists hope for a longer period. Landsat 7 launched in 1999 and is still in limited use today. As Del Jenstrom, Landsat 9 project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, explains, that fuel should last for at least 15 years.

Satellite images of the Verdi Ice Shelf west of the Antarctic Peninsula. Left: Image taken by Landsat 1 on January 29, 1973. right: Image taken by Landsat 8 on February 27, 2015. photos: NASA/USGS

Already, the Landsat Next program is planning the next generations of satellites, which will differ significantly as NASA and the United States Geological Survey (USGS) incorporate new technologies and architectures.

Julia Hager, PolarJournal

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