Remembering Virginia Norwood, Mother Of NASA’s Landsat Success

Virginia T. Norwood passed away earlier this year at the age of 96, and NASA’s farewell to this influential pioneer is a worth a read. Virginia was a brilliant physicist and engineer, and among her other accomplishments, we have her to thank for the ongoing success of the Landsat program, which continues to this day.

The goal of the program was to image land from space for the purpose of resource management. Landsat 1 launched with a Multispectral Scanner System (MSS) that Norwood designed to fulfill this task. Multispectral imaging was being done from aircraft at the time, but capturing this data from space — not to mention deciding which wavelengths to capture — and getting it back down to Earth required solving a whole lot of new and difficult problems.

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Seeing Plant Health In Infrared

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Since the 70s, NASA, NOAA, and the USGS have been operating a series of satellites designed to look at vegetation health around the world. These satellites, going under the name Landsat, use specialized camera filters that look at light reflecting off chlorophyll to gauge the health of forests, plains, oceans, and even farms. It’s all very interesting technology, and a few very cool people want to put one of these near infrared cameras in the hands of everyone.

The basic idea behind gauging the health of plants from orbit, or the¬†Normalized Difference Vegetation Index, is actually pretty simple: absorb red and blue light (thus our verdant forests), and reflect nearly all infrared light. By removing the IR filter from a digital camera and adding a ‘superblue’ filter, the NDVI can be calculated with just a little bit of image processing.

The folks behind this have put up a Kickstarter with rewards including a modified webcam, a custom point and shoot camera, and a very low-cost source of one of these superblue filters. Just the thing to see how your garden grows or how efficiently you can kill a houseplant.