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Landsat watches over the Earth, documenting 28 years of change

Collections of Landsat satellite imagery captured over 28 years, combined with Google Earth images, show the changing landscape of life on Earth.

The decline of Alaska's Columbia Glacier is one of Earth's changes featured in the new Google imagery based on the Landsat data archive. NASA images by Jesse Allen and Robert Simmon
NASA's Landsat 5, which recently set a Guinness World Record for the "Longest Operating Earth Observation Satellite," has been delivering high-quality, global data of Earth's land surface for 28 years and 10 months.

Using the annual Landsat satellite imagery captured since 1984, Google has created dramatic composites, alongside other Google Earth satellite imagery, depicting our changing world, the death and growth of natural lands, and humans' impact on the landscape.

The animated GIFs shown here chronicle the development and destruction of life on Earth, pulsing like a living being, with forests receding, water evaporating, and cities growing. Las Vegas crawls across the desert and construction is booming, while the Brazilian Amazon rainforest, and icy glaciers disappear before your eyes.

Landsat 5 has been a remarkable tool -- the two onboard instruments, the Multispectral Scanner System and the Thematic Mapper, have vastly outlived their original three-year mission requirement.

Since its launch from the Vandenberg Air Force base in Lompoc, Calif., on March 1, 1984, Landsat 5 has completed more than 150,000 orbits and sent back more than 2.5 million images of Earth's surface. On Dec. 21, 2012, the United States Geological Survey announced Landsat 5 would be decommissioned in the coming months after the failure of a gyroscope. The satellite carries three gyroscopes for altitude control and needs two to maintain it.

The Landsat program will continue, however. Landsat 5's longevity preserved the Landsat imaging program despite the loss of Landsat 6 in 1993, preventing a data gap before the launch of Landsat 7 in 1999.

Continuing the longstanding Earth imaging program, NASA recently launched a successor to the still-operational Landsat 7 satellite; the Landsat Data Continuity Mission (LDCM) lifted off on February 11, 2013. LDCM carries two new, more sensitive instruments, the Operational Land Imager and the Thermal Infrared Sensor.

Today, the Landsat program continues to provide data used across the United States and the world for agricultural and forest monitoring and water resource management, among many other environmental applications.