GARRETSON, SD (KELO) — It’s been just over three months since NASA handed over the keys of a new space satellite to the EROS Data Center in South Dakota. And ever since it drove off the lot, the Landsat 9 has logged millions of miles high above earth, snapping photos of changes to the landscape, with EROS at the steering wheel. But EROS is already setting its sites even higher when it comes to a portrait of the planet.

Inside this weather-resistant dome at the EROS Data Center, is a massive antenna dish moving into position to track a Landsat satellite passing overhead, some 438 miles above the earth.

“So when they pass over the continental U.S., we will connect with the satellite, pick it up above the horizon and we will track it over all the way to the other horizon,” EROS Satellite Ground Systems Operations Branch Chief Joe Blahovec said.

The 8-thousand-pound antenna has a dish that measures 33-feet in diameter. This giant earpiece locks onto the satellite and downloads photos of earth that EROS scientists collect and store. It’s a long-distance, 2-way cosmic conversation between the satellite and South Dakota, that takes place four to five times every day.

“It’s a polar orbit, so as it’s collecting imagery, the earth is spinning underneath it. It’s kind of painting out the surface of the earth, if you will,” EROS Acting Director Pete Doucette said.

Now, EROS has a new brush with which to paint the earth’s surface. EROS took over the controls of Landsat 9 from NASA back in August. The satellite was launched into space more than a year ago, and it’s sent back some 178-thousand images of the earth since then.

“It’s nice to see the pictures. They’re beautiful. The instruments are working awesome. We haven’t had any problems with the sensors since they’ve been up there,” Blahovec said.

Landsat 9 is the newest generation of earth-imaging satellites. It works in tandem with an earlier model, Landsat 8, for a continual photo shoot spanning the entire planet.

“That’s collecting about 10 million square miles per day and to put that in perspective, that’s about maybe two-and-a-half to three times the land mass of the United States per day,” Doucette said.

Landsat 9 has more sensitive instruments on board than previous satellites so it can give scientists a much clearer picture of what’s happening down below.

“In practical terms, means that we’re able to detect more subtle changes in gray shades of light, so that gives us more ability to do more sophisticated kinds of science in terms of what we’re detecting and how things are changing on the earth’s surface,” Doucette said.

That includes changes to the landscape in South Dakota.

“We can look at agricultural changes in the eastern part of the state and how it’s really ramped up in the 2000s, especially. I’m a fisherman, we can look at Lake Thompson and I can see how Lake Thompson water levels have fluctuated dramatically over the past 30-years. We can look at fire in the Black Hills,” EROS scientist Terry Sohl said.

The earth-imaging program is constantly moving onward and upward. Work is already underway on a new generation of satellites called ‘Landsat Next.’

“Landsat Next is what we’re calling the follow-up mission to Landsat 9. It will go through a developmental phase, probably through much of the decade and we’re looking at a launch time from of perhaps near the end of the decade,” Doucette said.

Satellite technology advances so quickly that even Landsat 9 can become old before its time. So Landsat Next will provide even higher resolution photos of earth while bringing new science and engineering jobs to EROS, thereby securing its lofty perch in space and on the prairie of South Dakota, for years to come.

Landsat 9 replaces a much older satellite called Landsat 7 that’s still in orbit. Within the next couple of years, scientists will attempt a first-ever mission involving Landsat 7 and an unmanned robotic arm designed to refuel the satellite in space.