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Landsat Missions

The Legacy of Landsat 5

Normal operations for the Landsat 5 Thematic Mapper (TM) ceased in November 2011. After failing to recover the electronics that led to its suspension, acquisitions were initiated with the Multi-Spectral Scanner (MSS). With continued issues onboard this aging spacecraft, Dr. Marcia McNutt, Director of the USGS, determined it was time to decommission this workhorse of the Landsat program.

After the TM was suspended in November 2011, the Landsat Project received numerous comments relating to the importance and value of Landsat 5. It has, after all, documented nearly every major event since March 1984. It has documented droughts, floods, volcanic eruptions, the clearing of rainforests, the greening of agricultural fields, the influence of a human population that grew from less than 5 billion to over 7 billion.

Here are some of the thoughts you've shared with us regarding the significance of Landsat 5 contributions:

I didn't cry when E.T. returned home, but I will cry now with Landsat5!

by Pablo Amado Montero
PhD Geology

Landsat 5 TM were the useful satellite image that substituted the fail in Landsat 7 ETM according to its SLC-off in the 2003-2011. Our organisation use the Landsat 5 TM data for many appication i.e volcanic eruption, landslide, flood, and other applications. Thanks for the USGS that delivered the data broadly and freely.

by Suwarsono
Researcher of the Indonesian Space Agency (LAPAN)

Congratulations to all Landsat Team and users around the world. This fantastic remote sensing satellite program brings the world to our desk for at least 40 years and now! Beyond. Get ready to go further. My best regards to you all.

by Miguel Archanjo

I was fortunate early in my career to watch the launch of Landsat 5 from at the EROS Data Center in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. I spent much of the next 4 years developing photographic products from L5 (it was the 80’s you know!) and marveling at the spectacular natural beauties of river deltas and desert sands juxtaposed with the anthropogenic aftermath of Chernobyl. While the famous ‘Blue Marble’ photo illustrated that we all inhabit a single planet, it has been the Landsat missions, and none more than Landsat 5, that have informed us of the changing face of that planet over time.

I’ve now spent most of the last 30 years working beside the men and women who have built, launched and flown Landsat 5 and 7 and have been privileged to observe firsthand the efforts expended to maintain these technological marvels and deliver the now millions of image products to end-users. Landsat 5 has overcome incredible adversity in its 154,000 orbits around Earth and always returned to active duty, continuing to provide the quality and quantity of imagery that has made her the Grande Dame of Earth remote sensing. We who’ve known her take solace in the fact that she’s leaving the stage as the class act she’s always been and with many, many admirers. Au revoir et dormez bien.

by Steven J. Covington

Images acquired since 1984 by L5-TM "The Eye" have enabled us to watch how the crops grow and how the changes on land cover happen. Its continuous, tireless and reliable recording of land surface has been a unique tool for a better water management in irrigated agriculture in La Mancha, Spain. Many people has been involved to achieve this objective. On behalf of them I would like to pay tribute to this instrument, and in him to all persons who have made possible their operation. L5-TM has made us part of the global family that has kept and used throughout the world. Its lifetime is also ours, over which we have grown and matured.

by Alfonso Calera

I remember first seeing a false-color Landsat image on the cover of Scientific American sometime in the 1970s. I was excited and honored to be able to work on the Landsat project at the S. Dakota ground station when Landsat 7 launched. Later L5 feeds came to our station.

Catepiller tracks aside, L5 has been amazing. A 3-year design life that lasted into the 29th year. How valuable is data collected over that long a time period by the same instrument?

by Jeff Prince

I have worked with Landsat images for over 10 years. It has been an incredible product for our mapping needs across British Columbia. We have used it to map landscape changes such as forest harvesting, fires and beetle damage as well as provide background imagery for users to overlay a variety of resource mapping projects. It was a very sad day when we lost access to the Landsat 5 images. I hope all goes well for your launch of Landsat8 and can't wait to start downloading the new imagery this year!!

by Ann Morrison

I have grown up in my career using Landsat 5TM images.

Soil water balance driven by remote sensing is now a reality and irrigation agriculture practices have now a new decission tool to improve and well manage in correct time and amount, the water delivered to irrigated crops.

Thanks to Landsat 5TM to make it possible.

In behalf of an IDR member team from the GIS & Remote Sensing department (Castilla-La Mancha University, Spain)

My career in remote sensing also coincided with Landsat 5. I map wildfires and the resulting burns over time as well as a host of other applications. I sure missed her the last two summers! Landsat 5 was a true workhorse. She was overshadowed briefly by 7, and the two together with coverage every 8 days was awesome. But, alas, the turtle out-ran the hare and when 7's data became non-continuous, 5 just kept on scanning. We can only hope the launch of Landsat 8 will get us back to where we were when 5 was flying. I am not the poet Rick Allen is below. He sure captured what Landsat 5 was all about and I thank him for putting into words what I could only feel.

Melinda McGann
Remote Sensing Specialist, US Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region

The construction of China Remote Sensing Satellite Ground Station was a result of the Sino-American Science and Technology agreement, Signed by Mr.Deng Xiaoping and then US president Jimmy Carter during Deng's visit to the USA in 1979. The station began to receive Landsat 5 and provide data to Chinese user community since 1986. No one expected L5 would last so long and contribute so much . It is a really technical wonder. I attended Landsat meeting many times and knew NASA/USGS leaders and engineers have made great effort to keep it working. Thank you. and farewell Landsat 5!

by Jianbo LIU
Vice director, Center for Earth Observation & Digital Earth, CAS

Before Landsat-5 matured into Rick Allen's Earthscope, she was a breakthrough for Earth. Although Landsat-4 had provided a few TM images, mostly of the US, the world used Landsat-5 to learn what TM could do.

My favourite image is of central New Brunswick, path 11 row 27 acquired 1984-July-30. With this image I discovered how the SWIR region was sensitive to forest damage, particularly insect damage. Barry Rock was discovering the same thing in the forests of New York and New England about the same time.

Certainly one of the most significant contributions of Landsat 5 was providing Brazil the data and ability to monitor deforestation in the Amazon precisely and accurately, year after year. This ability has supported a very long and arduous effort to decrease the rate of deforestation, which is now showing real success. Bravo Landsat-5 and bravo Brazil!

by Frank Ahern
Canada Centre for Remote Sensing (retired), and TerreVista Earth Imaging

Over many years, Landsat 5 became the 'workhorse' ('champion steed' would be a better description) that propelled satellite earth observations from a technological experiment into a key information gathering and management tool for us, the inhabitants and caretakers of the Earth. In Canada, it also allowed us to effectively use coarser resolution satellite images and eventually to work up to tracking changes over large areas at finer resolution. While much credit goes to NASA for technology development and hardware operations, the work of USGS in archiving and making easily accessible a 'databank of the Earth's surface' has been astonishing - and a very important contributor to making Landsat 5 the valuable scientific and environmental management tool it has become. It may well be a long time before these acheivements are surpassed; in any case, they define up the challenge for the future.

by Josef Cihlar

I recall celebrating the 10th birthday of Landsat-5 - on national TV in Canada! Landsat-5 was one of the USA's major contributions to the understanding of our planet and our role in it. Thank you to the USA on behalf of the rest of the world.

by Dr. Bob Ryerson
Former Scientist and Director General (Retired), CCRS

My career in remote sensing also coincided with Landsat 5. I map wildfires and the resulting burns over time as well as a host of other applications. I sure missed her the last two summers! Landsat 5 was a true workhorse. She was overshadowed briefly by 7, and the two together with coverage every 8 days was awesome. But, alas, the turtle out-ran the hare and when 7's data became non-continuous, 5 just kept on scanning. We can only hope the launch of Landsat 8 will get us back to where we were when 5 was flying. I am not the poet Rick Allen is below. He sure captured what Landsat 5 was all about and I thank him for putting into words what I could only feel.

by Melinda McGann
Remote Sensing Specialist, US Forest Service, Rocky Mountain Region

I started my career about the time Landsat 5 was launched, and I owe so much to the USGS and Landsat 5 for all it's years of wonderful service.

Flood mapping was one of the great applications for Landsat 5, and one which really stands out in my memory was the Missippi and Missour River floods of 1993.

So much good was made possible from it's imagery in hundreds of different applications throughout the world. Humanity owes a great debt to Landsat 5, and I'm truly sad to see it go.

Thank you to the USGS for your continued excellent work. A fond farewell to Landsat 5!

by Andy Baffes
Vice President
EGS Technologies Corporation

These were the voyages of Landsat 5. Its mission: to explore our world, to support our life and civilizations, to boldly help us live long, and prosper.

by Randolph H. Wynne

As student I saw Landsat-5 images in geography texts and was amazed and captivated by these views of the Earth. Learning that these were not pictures, but digital physical values that could be processed using computers, I was hooked! Landsat-5 served to educate me to space-based remote sensing and later enabled science and application developments that advanced our understanding of Canada's forest composition, structure, and dynamics.

by Mike Wulder

In August, 2006 R&D Center ScanEx became a participant of the International Mid-Decadal Global Land Survey (MDGLS) Project, managed by NASA and the USGS. During imaging seasons 2009-2010 ScanEx’s network of UniScan ground stations collected data in frames of GLS2010 Project followed by MDGLS. In frames of these Projects ScanEx supplied to the USGS images over the territory of the Russian Federation and neighboring countries. We highly appreciate unprecedented long lifetime of the Landsat 5 satellite and quality of images!

by ScanEx


Tribute to Landsat 5—Thematic Mapper

Landsat 5 was a long-time viewer and magnifier of Earth and its natural and water resources. For 27 years, she tirelessly watched the Earth’s delicate features, collecting and communicating photons reflected from vegetation, soil, water, ice and concrete.

She was a loving aficionado of Earth, capturing each new change, each spontaneous, unexpected growth, each new transition.
She was like a mother hen watching every movement of her brood, visually clucking after her chicks scattered across continents and across folds of mountainous terrain.

Landsat 5 loved watching water.
She watched streams ebb and flow with flood and drought.
She watched lakes grow large in North Dakota and others shrink on sun¬parched Texas plain.
She watched Alaskan glaciers give up cover to smoothed, etched stone.
She watched cubes of ice break free from Antarctica and float toward new destines.
She watched the resurgence of everglades in Florida, the ebbing of waterways in Quebec.
She watched the magic of vegetation appear in desert, supplied by hidden ground-water.
She watched Idaho center pivots meter drops of water, transforming sunlight into golden potatoes.
Over Sri Lanka, she could almost hear the arguments along water courses between the strong and the deprived over limited water and the weakening pleas some further distance away. She showed us the beautiful swirling white clouds named Katrina and dark blue flood waters on Bourbon Street.

Landsat 5 loved vegetation.
She watched passive land parcels in 1984 transition to parking lot, city park, and human developments by 2011.
She watched every acre of forest cleared along Amazonian rivers; small spots of brown budding into large fibrous channels absent of forest green.
She watched tamarisk, like a freed young lion, spread along Arizona streams. Her hawkish eyes watched treelines inch up high mountain slopes in response to mild temperatures.
She watched Nebraska fields scratched by cornhusker's plow.
She celebrated green fields of lettuce along Salinas Valley and miles of watermelon in Umatilla.
She viewed rebirth of dynamic forest near Mount St. Helens and transition of boreal forest in Finland.
She watched Saharan bush around African villages recede further with the birth of a child and need for feed and fuel.
She watched the abandonment and migration of forlorn desert farmer fleeing a hardening drought.
She watched southern pine forests in Alabama silently scrub carbon from surrounding air.
She watched green trees of Maryland transition to shading grey parking lots and expressways.


An Earthscope, Landsat 5 magnified each point on big sister Earth. Like an Earth-looking Hubble, she captured, over and over, the breath¬taking, glorious, colorful geometric designs formed by spontaneous, chaotic and exuberant nature below. Dark shades of green transitioning to light shades of brown, with fidelity only possible with her 30 meter clarity.

And she had that additional thermal eye. That sensor of the infrared, the teller of energy flow on the terra below.
She made visible the magical, invisible process of evaporation.
She scanned those items invisible to her human makers— the cold disks of corn above the Ogallala aquifer, whose cooling evaporation ebbed with declining groundwater, wet and dry seasons, and with changing markets and human policy the cool ribbons of riparian willow along Wyoming brooks, marking silent extraction of precious liquid the trails of heated fires pushing up Malibu ravines, propelled by ocean wind the mounding glow of magna at the peak of Mt. Etna. She was patient to view, again and again, the slow progressions.

She fed the data systems of receptive water management departments. Her images of water consumption were pointed to by more than a few thousand fingers.

She saw so much.

Landsat 5’s departure from us is something akin to when an old statesman or newscaster dies. They are old, and their death expected, but because of their persona and leadership, their legacies and visions continue to permeate our lives, even in death.

Landsat 5 was old, but continued to hold strong and true, producing precision images long past what was projected for her.

She seemed pleased to be the dependable, focused, caring eye. For so long, the workhorse, the ‘Earth-scope’, the Queen of Earth-watching.

Some proposed calling her and her siblings Landsat 7 and 8 the 'Satellites to Save Children,' because of her high resolution, continuous watch over desperate corners of Earth needing rescue and resource management.
Others called her 'EarthHawk,' because she illuminated human movement of water, soil and mineral, much for good, some for bad.

Many told her 'thank you' for the images following catastrophes that directed both aid and sympathy.

We all googled at her images, in awe of the Earth that she could see.

The Earth is not the same today.
She no longer feels the watchful gaze of her longtime friend, Landsat 5 Thematic Mapper.

by Rick Allen, University of Idaho, member of the 2006-2011 and 2012-2017 Landsat Science Teams
November 2011, Revised Nov. 2012

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