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Australia to publish live, free, satellite images

Landsat 8 images to hit the web under Creative Commons licence

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Australia will publish images captured by soon-to-launch satellite Landsat 8 online, in close to real time, for free.

Landsat 8 will launch in early 2013 and is expected to be fully operational by May or June of that year. Once the bird begins beaming back images, Geoscience Australia (GA) will publish them online under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Australia licence.

“We want to make as much data freely available as possible,” says Jeff Kingwell, the Section Leader of GA’s National Earth Observation Group. “We will move towards a system where we are taking Landsat data in, in near real time.” Data will be corrected to make it usable, then published, all in as close to real time as is practical.

The new service will be possible thanks to a new agreement between Australia and the USA that has seen Australia once again sign up as a formal partner in the Landsat program, which has sent seven satellites into orbit to capture images of earth. Australia provides ground stations for Landsat, in Hobart and Alice Springs, and will do so again for Landsat 8. A new Australian ground station, in Darwin, is under way and will allow capture of images of more locations.

There’s plenty of data to deal with, as Landsat’s orbit means is flies over Australia every day, sometimes three times a day.The images captured on each pass depict a 185km-wide strip of Australia.

Resolution is not massive – the Landsat Data Continuity Mission website says the new satellite will capture images at 15m-100m resolution – but the satellite and its predecessors were never intended to get close up. Instead, the satellites’ intended applications help all manner of industries to understand land use over time.

Kingwell says Landsat data is appreciated by those who conduct “broad acreage monitoring such as looking at deforestation, vegetation changes and urban expansion.” Their efforts will be assisted by GA’s decision to retrieve its ten-year-plus archive of Landsat images – estimated at half a petabyte - and make them available online. That longitudinal archive is expected to make long-term land use analysis easier.

Just how GA will pull off the delivery of live images is yet to be determined. Kingwell says the agency is making preparatory upgrades to connect to Landsat 8, but has not made any decisions about the web applications needed to deliver data to the public. The agency should, at least, have plenty of storage on hand to deal with the influx from Landsat: it tendered for a 50-petabyte rig a couple of years ago.

But storage won’t be the hard part, as the agency expects it will be deluged with requests for the images.

“The experience of the US Geological Survey when they moved to free to air service available online was that usage went up by a factor of 1000,” Kingwell told The Register.

GA has therefore commenced collaboration with Australia’s National Computational Infrastructure to get its hands on the grunt it will need to process incoming data.

GA has also famously undertaken an extensive re-platforming project for its data, so it can be more easily managed and accessed by the public. That effort has seen GA move some 400,000 older tapes onto IBM’s 3592 format over the last few years. Some older Landsat data will be re-platformed for the new archive. ®

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