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Behind the scenes: What happens at the EROS center near Sioux Falls

Published: Jul. 28, 2021 at 5:36 PM CDT
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SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (Dakota News Now) - On a country road, dotted with farms and acreages, a water tower is a marker for the curious to find something a little unusual, the U.S. Geological Survey’s EROS center. The name is derived from the words earth, resources, observation, and science.

Acting Director Peter Doucette says they look for specific things in the images.

“So we’re talking about forest lands croplands, minerals, wetlands, and soils and that kind of a thing,” said Doucette. “We monitor those natural resources over time, to determine how they’re changing over time and getting that information to decision-makers in fly about 438 miles above the surface of the earth, and then you’re hurtling at about 17,000 miles an hour.”

Kati Kline says the two existing satellites, lansat 7 and 8, are about the size of a school bus.

“In fact, the Landsat data was the first data that was put in the Google Earth Engine and was really the start of Google Earth,” said Kline.

Occasionally a satellite needs to be moved to avoid a collision.

“We coordinate with NASA as well as the Air Force, on, on looking at space junk and making sure we’re not going to get hit by anything,” said Kline.

When a satellite passes close by, the antenna inside the 60-foot tall radome is ready to download the latest images, all in the form of tiny pixels. Tom Sohre oversees the process.

“As the data comes down, we acquire it, then from the satellite, we ingest it,” said Sohre.

The amount of data is huge, and it’s added to the collection of images that go back to the 1930s.

“We have probably about 20,000 square feet of raised floor space that supports our IT infrastructure,” said Sohre. “We store and manage about 65 petabytes. So, a supercomputer, made by Cray, that computer has about 9000 compute nodes that it can use together to support science visualization, data analytics, artificial intelligence, machine Learning type capabilities for the USGS.”

The images are available to the public.

“Users from Eros and the USGS, Department of Interior users, users from other educational and research organizations and then the global user community,” said Sohre.

EROS staff also interpret the information. Research Geographer Jesslyn Brown shows us an area near Waubay.

“You can see change over time,” said Brown.

Although we’re in the midst of a drought, there is another trend she found over the last three decades.

“But generally speaking, we’re seeing increases in surface water in both eastern South Dakota and eastern North Dakota,” said Brown. Slowly over time precipitation in this area has been gradually increasing.”

Lansat 9 will launch this fall, gathering not only visual images but infrared and thermal band spectrums. It’s all part of a quest to learn more.

“And we’re looking to move into this emerging area of data science, where we can tap into some of the latest technologies of artificial intelligence and machine learning,” said Doucette.

All of this information is gathered, stored, analyzed, and shared from this building, tucked in the rolling hills of eastern South Dakota.

“It’s very satisfying to know that we’re having a significant impact on people’s lives, not just in this country but really across the planet,” said Doucette.

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