To minimize risk, one or more low-cost small satellites could be launched before the end of the design life of Landsat 8. Not only would this demonstrate capability, but it would also allow for cross-calibration, as is common in many other scientific endeavors (Jason-1 was calibrated by underflying the gold standard TOPEX/Poseidon, not to mention the Landsat 7 underflight of Landsat 5 and the Landsat 8 underflight of Landsat 7).
To sustain U.S. land imaging, one would weigh the identified alternative approaches to implementing Landsat 9 and beyond and select a combination that best suits the circumstances of the moment. Fiscal resources are likely to be the leading constraint. One such approach might be to build Landsat 9 as a clone of Landsat 8. However, so much time has passed since Landsat 8 was procured and constructed that a true clone probably cannot be built. Some parts are likely to be unavailable; government procurement rules would make sole-sourcing the same contractors difficult; and the specific teams of people involved have gone on to other projects. Nonetheless, it might make sense to use Landsat 8 as a template for the next suite of missions, even allowing for some modest technological improvements (given the impossibility of building a true clone anyway), such as increasing the swath width. In this case, the desired approach would be a block buy of several identical units, perhaps Landsats 9 through 12. The design is fixed, the parts are all bought up front, and the same team builds all four units. With a fixed-price contract, the government making no changes along the way, and a collaborative team approach following “light touch” principles, significant savings would be realizable for Landsats 10 through 12. However, Landsat 9, a near clone of Landsat 8, would cost as much as its predecessor.
Therefore, if the overarching constraint is the cost of the next Landsat, then this approach is not viable. In such a case, one is forced to look at more creative, innovative, possibly riskier approaches such as constellations of small satellites. Considerable cost savings could result, especially for the first unit(s), but this approach would require the government to step outside its comfort zone and do something totally different, driven by the unavailability of funds that would allow doing otherwise.
Regardless of the approach selected, integration of the data from Landsat 9 and beyond with data from both commercial and international sources is necessary. Given these other factors, the committee does not recommend a specific course of action. The agencies and Congress must decide which combination of options to implement.
The Sustained and Enhanced Land Imaging Program will not be viable under the current mission development and management practices.
At least partly because of the unplanned, chaotic programmatic history of Landsat, the cost of each of five Landsat missions after the addition of the Thematic Mapper instrument has also been about $1 billion, when adjusted for inflation. Over the last 30 years, while there has been some technological improvement in the collection, processing, and use of Landsat data, there has been no reduction in the cost of a Landsat mission.
Building an exact copy of Landsat 8 might seem to be the simplest approach for Landsat 9, but that approach is not likely to substantially lower the cost for the next mission.
Nonetheless, options do exist to create a less costly, more robust SELIP, including the block buy of a sequence of missions, less cumbersome contracting processes, and technological innovations.
The Sustained and Enhanced Land Imaging Program should create an ambitious plan to incorporate opportunities to improve land imaging capabilities while at the same time increasing operational efficiency and reducing overall program cost.
The program should consider a combination of the following to increase capabilities while reducing the costs for land imaging beyond Landsat 8: