SD leaders watch as Earth satellite launches

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Associated Press

Posted on February 11, 2013 at 5:30 PM

GARRETSON, S.D. (AP) — Local dignitaries joined space enthusiasts Monday to watch the launch of an Earth-observing satellite whose images will be bounced back to a South Dakota laboratory where scientists study the planet's changing landscape.

City mayors, scientists and others gathered at the Earth Resources Observation Systems in Garretson to watch the televised launch of the rocket carrying the Landsat 8. EROS, part of the U.S. Geological Survey, is the main repository for images from Landsat satellites, which have been continuously snapping photos of the globe for 40 years.

But this newest satellite is more powerful — able to spin around the planet 14 times a day, snapping hundreds of pictures — than its predecessors, which makes scientists like Roger Auch especially giddy.

"I'm excited to look at the imagery because it's going to be sharper than we dealt with before. I tend to look at things visually, so it should be looking like Hi-Def TV," said Auch, of Sioux Falls.

Auch said Landsat 7, which went into orbit in 1999, has some data gaps, making his job more difficult at times. He expects to be able to start working with Landsat 8 images in about 100 days.

"The continuation of Landsat allows me to keep telling stories of all the major land types of changes," he said. "From answering some basic questions — what happened, where did it happen and when did it happen — I try to find out why did it happen, because that's one thing you can't tell from just looking at the satellites. You have to do additional research," he said.

The rocket carrying the Landsat 8 launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base along California's central coast. But officials at EROS thought it fitting to have a watch party where the satellites images are studied.

Three screens were set up inside a theater so scientists, their family and local leaders could watch the launch from California.

"There are people in this room that have spent a better part of a decade to watch this launch," EROS director Frank Kelly said moments before the official launch that took place at 12:02 p.m. local time. Kelly also was joined by Sioux Falls Mayor Mike Huether, as well as mayors of nearby Harrisburg and Dell Rapids, and representatives from the offices of U.S. Sens. Tim Johnson and John Thune.

Applause broke out following the successful launch.

"It was awful impressive that hurry up and wait and long countdown...when that final countdown came down it got impressive and emotional," said Bob Sanders who has been following the work of the EROS for years and provides some of the printing needs for the organization.

Sanders attended the launch watch with his wife and grandson, saying: "It's just amazing that the international scientists that come in here to study."

Since 1972, the Landsat satellites have been providing images of the earth's changing landscape that orbit back to EROS. The U.S. Geological Survey recently decided to retire its Landsat 5 satellite after nearly 30 years in service, which left Landsat 7 to provide daily observations. Landsat 6 never reached orbit after its launch in 1993 because of a ruptured manifold.

Once the Landsat 8 reaches 440 miles above Earth, the satellite will be able to start snapping photos that will be beamed back to the South Dakota lab, along with ground stations in Alaska and Norway.

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Follow Kristi Eaton on Twitter at http://twitter.com/kristieaton .

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