From Mason Jars to Satellite Imaging


There are few things more iconic than a Ball Mason Jar. Beloved of homesteaders, canning fans, and smoothie-swigging hipsters alike, the dumpy glass jars with their two-part metal lids are – dare we say it? – screwed firmly into place in our society. Since its invention in the mid-1900s by John Landis Mason, the eponymous jar has been manufactured under license by the Ball Corporation of Broomfield, CO, a company that by no means limits its horizons to the manufacture of humble storage units. Indeed, with its more than 17,500 employees at 100+ locations, Ball is now invested in strictly 21st century markets such as data analytics and exploitation, electronic warfare, and space science. And, for many of its endeavors, cleanrooms and controlled environments are required. Which is why Ball Aerospace, a subsidiary of the parent company, has created ‘more than 1 million square feet of state-of-the-art cleanrooms, manufacturing spaces and classified areas.’(1) But what are they used for and how is Ball leveraging its new cleanroom resources?

With facilities ranging from Class 8 to Class 6 cleanrooms, thermal vacuum chambers, a Radar Cross-Section/Radio Frequency anechoic chamber, and more than 278,000 square feet of production space, the Ball Aerospace Fisher Complex in Boulder, CO, is the perfect locale for innovation within the aerospace industry. Indeed, the enterprise prides itself upon offering the market ‘very nimble Earth imaging satellites, high bandwidth laser communication options and LIDAR imaging technologies [that] work extremely well for a variety of new cost-effective space and airborne missions.’(2) And thanks to such corporate expertise, the company is perfectly positioned to spearhead the engineering of OLI-2, Landsat 9’s next generation Operational Land Imager.


LandSATS. No, don’t panic, we’re not talking about S A T s – the much dreaded college admission test – we’re talking about satellites. In the past, we’ve written about the miniaturization of CubeSATS and their potential use in missions to the moon, comets, asteroids, and even to Mars. But that was all in relation to space exploration. For those of us who enjoy keeping our feet planted a little more securely on terre firma, Landsat science just might be where it’s at. And you’ll be forgiven if the term is unfamiliar – this Planet Earth-focused technology just might be one of NASA’s better kept secrets. But don’t let that fool you: Landsat exploitation is incredibly useful. How? Let’s find out…

Since the early 1970s, the Landsat Program – a collaboration between NASA and the U.S. Geological Survey – has been continuously archiving images of the planet, making it the longest running global monitoring program in human history.

In 1975, then NASA Administrator James Fletcher predicted it would be the one development with the power to save the world – a hope that gains increasing gravitas in an era of systemic climate change. With ‘moderate’ spatial resolution, the Landsat sensors can log structures such as freeways making them ‘coarse enough for global coverage, yet detailed enough to characterize human-scale processes such as urban growth.’(3)

Landsat 9 is the newest generation of technology to perform this global monitoring function. Built by Northrop Grumman in Gilbert, AZ, the spacecraft incorporates two instruments – the aforementioned OLI-2 and the Thermal Infrared Sensor 2, or TIRS-2. OLI-2 is tasked with  measuring in the visible, near infrared, and shortwave infrared, and the spatial resolution of its images will be 49 feet for the panchromatic band and 98 feet for the multispectral bands. Moreover, not content with imaging in three different spectral bands, linear detector arrays will create images covering 115 miles in width, while still offering a sufficiently high resolution to see town centers, farm buildings, and forests. In addition, OLI-2 will include an optical telescope, Focal Plane Array/Focal Plane Electronics (FPA/FPE), calibration hardware, and instrument support electronics, allowing Landsat 9 to relay its data in an enhanced bit depth (14-bit as opposed to the earlier 12-bit format) to give better images of otherwise impenetrable  targets such as dark forested areas.

TIRS-2 is the companion instrumentation charged with measuring land surface temperatures. By contrast with that of its craft-mate OLI-2, this mission sounds relatively simple, but don’t be fooled. TIRS-2 leverages ‘principles of quantum physics to measure emissions of infrared energy,’ providing two-band thermal imagery matching and surpassing its predecessor’s ‘thermal spectral, spatial, radiometric and geometric qualities.’(4) To what ends? According to an article in SciTechDaily, ‘Water managers across the American West, as well as arid regions across the globe, rely on the highly calibrated measurements made by Landsat 8’s Thermal Infrared Sensor to monitor irrigation and water usage and they are eager to have the record continued by Landsat 9’s TIRS-2.’(5)

But it’s not only in water management that imagery from space is used. From agriculture to urban growth, forest management to fire containment, Landsat-derived data can provide up-to-the-minute situational snapshots. Take, for instance, in natural disasters such as wildfires where visual data play an important role in ‘assessing the impact of fires on forest ecosystems and human society. Landsat satellites document the location and extent of burned areas, how severely fires burn, and the subsequent regrowth of the land after a forest fire. All this information helps land managers better manage […] forests and other natural resources in the context of fire.’(6) Landsat imagery of the Camp Fire in Northern California, for example, revealed how quickly the town of Paradise was engulfed in flame, destroying 90% of dwellings, burning almost 19,000 structures, and leading to the deaths of more than 80 people. In assisting in fire containment efforts, Landsat 8 used shortwave infrared (SWIR) and Thermal Infrared (TIR) technologies to collect images through the smoke generated by the conflagration, allowing researchers and firefighters to identify the active fire front and also hotspots hidden by the smoke. The data also revealed that the blaze exhibited ‘leapfrog’ behavior as wind gusts carried burning embers 2-3 miles ahead of the fire front. A clearer picture of the inferno’s characteristics generated predictive data on spread and direction that allowed the establishment and defense of perimeters, effectively maximizing efficiency of resources to ultimately quell the blaze. As Zeke Lunder, a pyrogeographer and founder of Deer Creek GIS, noted: ‘We rarely are able to find images such as this, which capture the peak burning period of a major fire we are working. The size of the spot fires, distance the spot fires were ahead of the main fire, the hot spots—each a burning home—the width of the flaming front, and the fire’s impingement on all of the major evacuation routes, all tell a crazy story, capturing a remarkably dramatic and traumatic point in time.’(7)

But are Landsats useful only in times of emergency?

Not at all. The reality of having a globalized system allows decision makers to identify and minimize ongoing environmental risks such as evolving landscapes, changes in natural water resources, the health of land used for crop cultivation, and the state of habitats that might support biological vectors of disease. At least anecdotally, we know, for instance, that algal blooms are becoming more common in our rivers and waterways, but how do we determine the severity of this trend? According to an article published last year in Nature, ‘Widespread global increase in intense lake phytoplankton blooms since the 1980s,’ a team used data gathered in part by Landsats to highlight a significant increase in freshwater blooms that constitute a direct threat to public health: ‘Here we use three decades of high-resolution Landsat 5 satellite imagery to investigate long-term trends in intense summertime near-surface phytoplankton blooms for 71 large lakes globally. We find that peak summertime bloom intensity has increased in most (68 per cent) of the lakes studied, revealing a global exacerbation of bloom conditions.’(8) Landsat 5 was a near-Earth orbiting satellite which operated between 1984 and 2013 at a resolution of 30 meters and generated no fewer than 72 billion data points that were used in this analysis.

And just as Landsats play a role in monitoring water resources so too are they vital in cropland conservation.

According to NASA, farming organizations ‘rely on the unbiased, accurate and timely information provided by Landsat satellites […] to analyze the health and vigor of crops as they mature over the growing season; the needs of specific fields for fertilizer, irrigation and rotation; planted acreage to forecast crop production and fight crop insurance fraud; how much water is used in irrigation; and the impacts of drought.’(9) In fact, as NASA acknowledges ‘space-based land imaging is essential because it provides repetitive and synoptic observations of the Earth otherwise unavailable to researchers and managers who work across wide geographical areas and applications. Landsat data informs good decisions in many disciplines, especially: human health, agriculture, climate, energy, fire, natural disasters, urban growth, water management, ecosystems and biodiversity, and forest management.’(10)

Of course it would not be possible to satisfy these needs for satellite imagery without one fundamental resource: the cleanroom.

In its Fisher Complex in Boulder, CO, Ball Aerospace boasts no fewer than 28 cleanrooms from Class 8 to Class 5, in addition to 64 controlled and closed areas totaling almost 200,000 square feet in area. Along with 90,000 square feet of laboratory space, 278,000 square feet of production area is available, allowing for rapid prototyping, sub-assemblies, environmental testing, component integration, and cleaning. Three of the cleanrooms have laminar air flow, and all have custom-designed air systems. Molecular contamination is prevented using pressure control and bespoke hoods and exhaust systems are also in place. According to the RMH Group which worked with Ball to retrofit the facility, even the electrical systems were engineered to maximize cleanroom efficiency with ‘electrostatic dis­charge, deionized water, heavy power for the support equipment, photosensitive “yel­low” lighting, branch grounding, and overhead hoist electrical.’(11) In short, no expense was spared.

And this is critical when we review the quality of products emerging from that facility. The Landsat 9 spacecraft with its OLI-2 and TIRS-2 components is the work of many hundreds of designers, engineers, scientists, managers, and technicians, and represents the promise made by NASA and the US Geological Survey more than 40 years ago: to start ‘the trend of repetitive, calibrated observations of the Earth at a spatial resolution where one can detect man’s interaction with the environment.’(12) In a period of human history in which climate science finds itself battling popular social denial, the need for the data archived by the Landsat program is arguably greater than ever. For those who work on halting what is fast becoming a steady march to environmental annihilation, Landsat imagery offers incontestable evidence of man’s impact on the natural world. And it reminds us to remain vigilant, to acknowledge the effects of our interaction with this fragile planet, and to retain the wonder experienced when we first look down from space on this endlessly fascinating, but ultimately fragile, biosphere we call ‘home.’

Landsats – what did you already know of NASA’s 40+ years of imaging? Which of the area of data use interests you most? We’d love to know your thoughts!




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