The Landsat series of satellites has been providing high-resolution images of the earth's surface for 40 years -- since 1972. Today at about 1 PM EST, the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM), to be renamed Landsat 8 once it's fully operational, launched from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on the back of an Atlas V rocket, continuing the legacy of NASA's longest-running mission to space.
The launch was broadcast live and streamed online.
This most recent satellite weighs 6,133 pounds and cost $855 million, says Space.com, and it carries 870 pounds of fuel, which is enough to last ten years. Photos taken by Landsat 8 will have a resolution of 49 to 328 feet. It can store 3.14 terabits of information on a solid-state recorder and orbits the earth at an altitude of 438 miles. It will complete just over 14 orbits per day, taking a complete picture of the earth's surface every 16 days.
Two primary instruments will be running aboard the Landsat 8 -- the Operational Land Imager (OLI) and the Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS). The OLI is designed to collect visible and near-infrared wavelength information while TIRS will record surface temperatures. NASA will handle the Landsat's operation for 3 months before handing it off to the USGS (United States Geological Survey).
Several of the Landsat satellites have had overlapping periods of operation. Landsat 1, called the Earth Resources Technology Satellite before it was renamed, came online on July 23, 1972, two years after scientists first began the project. Landsat 5, which is identical to 4 and had been planned as a backup, has been in operation for 28 years. It lasted a quarter century longer than it was planned, essentially saving the mission though Landsat 6's crash and burn shortly after launch in 1993.
Landsat 5 picked up the slack and prevented an information blackout until Landsat 7 launched in 1999, according to NASA. It also won a Guinness World Record for being the "longest-operating Earth observation satellite." It was decommissioned in January 2013, at which point only Landsat 7 was operational.
Despite its seemingly distant and purely scientific uses, many people use Landsat data every day. Google Earth, for instance, uses information taken by the satellites.