A satellite designed, built and tested in Gilbert will be launched in February to circle the globe collecting data for NASA and the Department of Interior.

The LDCM, or Landsat8 as it will be known upon its launch, will continue the work of NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey Earth observations program, the seventh satellite to launch since 1972.

The newest LandSat satellite in the fleet will extend the 40-year legacy of satellites that continuously collect data and images of the Earth's surface.

The Satellite Manufacturing Facility in Gilbert currently employs 300 people, nearly all of which have helped in some way with the project, said Mike Miller, Orbital Sciences Corporation senior vice president of science and environmental satellite programs.

"It's not the largest satellite we've built, but the size is based on the requests of the customer," said Daren Iverson, LDCM program manager.

The instrument is just about 20 feet tall with a 9-foot diameter at its widest point. The solar array, with four solar panels, will stretch out 32 feet from the satellite when extended. Its mass is just over 3,000 kg.

The main determining factor of the satellite size is number and size of the instruments on it, Iverson said.

Landsat5 and Landsat7 are currently in commission for the project, however, upon the successful launch of Landsat8, the fifth satellite will be decommissioned and taken out of orbit, said Iverson said. The sixth in the series did not make it into space.

"Four and five were built by a predecessor to Orbital in the early '80s," Iverson said.

The eighth generation has over a five-year lifespan, but it may last longer he said.

"The goal is 10 years," he said. "But there are way too many stressful factors that you can't always predict."

This data collection benefits many industries, including agriculture, geology, forestry, regional planning, education, mapping, global change research, emergency response and disaster relief.

The satellite has two new spectral bands, which will allow it to detect clouds on coastal zones. Additionally, it will produce more than twice as many images per day than the Landsat7.

The data from the Landsat program will be used all over Arizona to help with agriculture, said Susan Moran, a hydrologist for USDA Southwest Watershed Research Center.

The agricultural research service uses information to look for "cover," or brush and grass, that is used for cattle grazing, she said.

"Better vegetation cover means more cattle and less erosion," she said.

Creating better and more efficient ways to use water is incredibly important, said Prasad Thenkabail, research geographer with the U.S. Geological Survey.

"Ninety percent of all human water goes to croplands," he said.

For instance, California contains less than one percent of all U.S farmland, but it provides nearly 50 percent of fruits, nuts and vegetables in the country. Additionally, the Central Valley region of California produces 12 percent of all U.S. farm revenue.

By monitoring the health of crops, such as the leaf density, water can be used more efficiently, Thenkabail said.

The state-of-the-art facility in Gilbert means that the company could potentially build as many as six satellites the size of the Landsat8 at any given time, said Iverson.

"If they're smaller, we could build 20," he said.

The facility has another two satellites currently being built.

"Late next year we'll start to get even busier," he said.

The Orbiting Carbon Obervatory-2 for NASA should launch summer 2014 and the Iridium Next 81 spacecraft for Thales Alenia has a 2015 launch date.


Information from: East Valley Tribune,