Picture of the Landsat 1 satellite in a clean room, surrounded by Landsat team members.

How a satellite found a tiny island—and made Canada a bit bigger

Discovered only about 50 years ago, Landsat Island off the country's Atlantic coast bears the name of the world's first Earth-observing satellite program.

Landsat 1, launched in July 1972, was the first satellite designed to study Earth from orbit. The spacecraft is seen here in flight configuration with its solar panels deployed at the former GE plant in Valley Forge, Pennsylvania.
Photograph by NASA

Squint closely at a map of the North Atlantic, off the eastern coast of Canada’s Newfoundland and Labrador Province, and you’ll see … well, nothing. The uninhabited island that should be there is too tiny for even Google Maps to display.

But nearly 50 years ago NASA’s first Earth-observing satellite, a joint project with the U.S. Geological Survey, picked up the island’s spectral signature from more than 500 miles high. The discovery increased Canada’s territorial area by 26.25 square miles—a modest expansion that nonetheless heralded an exciting accomplishment for the program today known as Landsat. In 1979 the outcrop was officially named Landsat Island, after the revolutionary eye-in-the-sky that had spotted it.

“It just totally changed the field of cartography,” Terry Sohl, a researcher with the USGS Earth Resources Observation and Science Center, says of the program.

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