By Chris Riotta
When the Landsat 5 was launched into orbit in 1984, the Guinness World Records wasn’t exactly in its trajectory.
However, after outliving its three-year design life and delivering high-quality, global data of Earth’s land surface for over 28 years, the satellite wound up breaking a lengthy record to say the least.
NASA was notified by Guinness World Records via email that the Landsat 5 was now the ‘Longest-operating Earth observation satellite’ in history.
The satellite was launched on March 1, 1984 from the Vandenberg Air Force base in Lompoc, CA. Designed and built at the same time as the Landsat 4, it carried the same two instruments as its predecessor: the Multispectral Scanner System and the Thematic Mapper.
The Landsat 5 was then managed by the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS) as part of its Landsat program. In its 28 years and 10 months in space, the Landsat completed more than 150,000 orbits around the Earth and sent back more than 2.5 million images of the planet’s surface.
USGS announced on Dec. 21, 2012 that the Landsat 5 would be decommissioned in the following months due to the failure of a redundant gyroscope. The satellite carries three gyroscopes for altitude control, yet only needs two to maintain control. Still, NASA thought it would be best to officially terminate its operations on the Landsat 5 while it still remained functional.
“This is the end of an era for a remarkable satellite,” said Anne Castle, Department of the Interior Assistant Secretary for Water and Science in a press release. “And the fact that it flew for almost three decades is a testament to the NASA engineers who launched it and the USGS team who kept it flying well beyond its expected lifetime.”
The Landsat 5 managed to exceed its lifespan due to the additional fuel it was equipped with. NASA originally equipped the satellite with this extra fuel so the satellite could be retrievable by the space shuttle, but this idea was soon scrapped by NASA engineers.
The Landsat operations were more than lucky to have had the Landsat 5 sustain decades of orbiting through space when the Landsat 6 lost its ability to relay information to the space center.
“Landsat 5 saved the Landsat program.” Said Jim Irons, a Landsat Data Community Mission (LDCM) Scientist. “This satellite’s longevity preserved the Landsat program through the loss of Landsat 6 in 1993, preventing the specter of a data gap before the launch of Landsat 7 in 1999.”
While the Landsat 7 is still operating, NASA has just recently launched the LDCM satellite on Feb. 11, 2013. The satellite carries two new instruments; the Operational Land Imager and the Thermal Infrared Sensor, which will gather information that is compatible with data from Landsat 5 and 7, and improve upon it with advanced instrument designs that are more sensitive to changes to the land surface, said Irons.
After the technologically-advanced LDCM satellite goes through rigorous testing and certified for orbit, it will then be renamed Landsat 8 and will continue the Landsat program’s 40-year data record of monitoring Earth from space. For now, however, the Landsat 5 will remain the satellite in a long line of operations that orbited its way into the Guinness World Records.