The Landsat satellite was boosted into orbit by an Atlas V rocket shortly before 11:30 a.m. local time, more than an hour after lifting off from Vandenberg Air Force Base under mostly clear skies.
Mission controllers tracked the rocket’s path as it streaked in a southwesterly direction over the Pacific and climbed into space. Cheers erupted in the control room when controllers received word of spacecraft separation.
“Give yourselves a pat on the back, shake each other’s hand, hug each other, cry a little bit and then go celebrate,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden Jr., who tracked the launch from mission control.
The $855 million mission continues a four-decade legacy of keeping a continuous eye on Earth’s glaciers, forests and shorelines from space.
Since the first Landsat launch in 1972, the satellites have been key witnesses to history, documenting the 1980 Mount St. Helens eruption and the 1986 Chernobyl nuclear disaster.
Through the decades, the Landsat satellites have monitored drought conditions, global crop output, shrinking glaciers and the effects of urban sprawl.
On the eve of the launch, Bolden reflected on the program’s longevity, noting that the satellites have given people unprecedented views of Earth.
“Each time we fly, we learn something different we didn’t know about Earth,” Bolden said Sunday.
The newest Landsat is equipped with sensors that are more powerful than its predecessors. Orbiting 440 miles above Earth, the satellite will zip around the planet 14 times a day, snapping hundreds of pictures that will be beamed back to ground stations in South Dakota, Alaska and Norway.
After a three-month checkout phase, day-to-day operations will be turned over to the U.S. Geological Survey, which intends to make images and data free on the Internet as in previous Landsat missions. NASA developed the spacecraft and its two instruments.
The latest satellite will join Landsat 7, launched in 1999. While Landsat 7 continues to provide daily observations, a problem with one of its instruments has cut the amount of data it can gather.
The USGS recently decided to retire its Landsat 5 satellite after nearly 30 years in service.