Earth Observing-1 wasn’t supposed to survive as long as it did. Operating on a shoestring budget, the spartan satellite outlasted its warranty 15-fold, and changed the way we do space-based imaging of our planet.
The satellite trained its observant lens on the ashes of the 9/11 terrorist attacks. It captured the flood that followed in Hurricane Katrina’s wake. It took stock of the devastating tsunami that hit Japan in 2011. It was the first to map active lava flows from space, and the first to track re-growth in the deforested Amazon.
But all things must pass. EO-1 shut down last Thursday, in orbit, some 440 miles above Earth. It was 17.
“I was the first signatory on the decommissioning page, which was a little sad,” says Betsy Middleton, project scientist for EO-1 at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. “We’re really bummed, but I managed to get two more years by all but throwing myself down in front of the last senior review and kicking and flailing.”
A fleet of watchful human-built satellites surrounds our planet, studying its landscapes, oceans and atmosphere on behalf of researchers, corporations, and governments. Some of the best-known American ones are the Landsat probes, which have been taking pictures of Earth since July 1972. Others include Terra and Aqua, which view the entire Earth’s surface every one to two days, and the Orbiting Carbon Observatory-2, which monitors global carbon dioxide levels. EO-1 was built as a test satellite to show off technologies suited to these pricier, more robust orbiters.