Landsat Technical
Characteristics

ES 351, ES 771, ES 775
James S. Aber


Landsats 1-3 carried return-beam vidicon (RBV) cameras and multispectral scanners (MSS). Landsats 4-5 carried the MSS as well as the thematic mapper (TM), a more advanced scanner. Landsat 7 had an enhanced thematic mapper plus (ETM+), and Landsat 8 carries the Operational Land Imager (OLI) and Thermal Infrared Sensor (TIRS).

Landsat orbit configuration

Landsat satellites follow near-polar orbits that are inclined approximately 8° to the poles. Landsats 1, 2 and 3 orbited at 920 km altitude 14 times per day. Over a period of 252 orbits, or every 18 days, a satellite covered every portion of the Earth, except for polar regions above 82° latitude. Landsats 4, 5, 7 and 8 orbit at 705 km altitude with a 16-day repeat interval for global coverage. The Landsat orbit is designed to be sun synchronous. In other words, the satellite crosses the equator at the same local sun time with each orbit. This provides for some uniformity of lighting conditions.

Landsat orbit pattern and path numbering scheme for Landsats 4, 5, 7 and 8. Note the variation in path orientation according to latitude. The curved paths result from the map projection. Taken from U.S. Geological Survey Landsat.

Scanner capabilities

The multispectral scanner (MSS) detects reflected solar energy in two bands of visible light and two bands of short-infrared energy. Scanning is accomplished by a mirror that oscillates back and forth across the scene. Energy is measured in four bands for six lines with each scan of the mirror. Energy intensities are sampled every 57 m along scan lines, and the data are recorded as digital values: 0-127 for bands 1, 2 and 3; 0-63 for band 4 (Holkenbrink 1978). The thematic mapper operates in seven bands of visible and infrared energy with a resolution of 30 m. Data are recorded on byte-binary scale (0-255). The ETM+ added a panchromatic band (0.5-0.9 µm) at 15 m resolution. See
Landsat 8 instruments.

General operation of the Landsat MSS instrument for creating imagery from scanning back and forth across the orbital track. Taken from USGS (1995). TM and ETM scanners function in a similar manner.

A complete image takes about 25 seconds to scan, during which time the Earth rotates eastward beneath the satellite path. To compensate for this, scan lines are slightly offset in the resulting image, which is shaped like a parallelogram. The orientation of a scene depends on latitude; at about 50° the scene is tilted approximately 10° from true north.

Characteristics of Landsat MSS digital data

The characteristics of Landsat MSS data have changed over the years. Archive Landsat MSS datasets are supplied from the EROS Data Center in two formats.

  1. X-format, 1972 to 1979. Band-interleaved by pixel pair (BIP-2). Rectangular pixel shape and paired interleaving format proved awkward, so this format was discontinued in 1979. Data quality varies substantially, and many scenes have incomplete data. X-format is recommended only for environmental change applications in which data from the 1970s are necessary.

  2. EDIPS (EROS Digital Image Processing System) format is fully processed data. The raw data are resampled so the each cell is 57 x 57 m square. A geometrically corrected, fully processed Landsat MSS image nominally contains 2983 scan lines with 3596 pixels per line. The data are available in band-sequential (BSQ) or band-interleaved-by-line (BIL) format. In BSQ format, which is most convenient for image processing, each band is about 10 MB in size. EDIPS format is standard for all MSS data beginning in 1979; data quality is fair to excellent.

Landsat MSS datasets are now considered largely historical in nature, as the TM, ETM+, OLI and TIRS instruments provide greater spatial and spectral resolution. However, MSS datasets are often necessary for temporal change analysis going back to the 1970s.

Selection and ordering of Landsat scenes

The selection process begins with a geographic search for acceptable images. The geographic locations may be specified by latitude/longitude or by row/path positions. The search may be conducted on-line now using the World Wide Web to access Glovis and EarthExplorer at the EROS Data Center (EDC) in Sioux Falls, South Dakota. Earth Explorer is an interactive computer system that contains metadata and browse images for Landsat and many other GIS and remotely sensed data bases.

From the metadata listing, digital datasets are chosen to order. Archive Landsat digital data (and film images) are held at EDC and at several international remote sensing centers. New and archive Landsat datasets from the U.S. Geological Survey are now free to the public and represent more than four decades of continuous Earth observation.

Careful selection of scenes is most important for all types of geological, hydrological, geomorphological, and other environmental applications. Only images with the highest quality rating and minimal (<10%) cloud cover should be considered. Time of year is an important consideration, as it affects vegetation, soil moisture, agriculture, sun elevation, snow/ice cover, and other seasonal conditions.


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Notice: ES 351, 771 and 775 are presented for the use and benefit of students enrolled at Emporia State University. Any other use of text, imagery or curriculum materials is prohibited without permission of the instructor. All Landsat webpage material © J.S. Aber (2013).