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A sensor on the early Landsats had a name worthy of some Star Trek gadget. Originally Landsat’s primary sensor, the Return Beam Vidicon (RBV) flew on the first three Landsats.

A sample RBV image shows the northwestern coast of Madagascar. The black-and-white image from 1981 has higher resolution than the Multispectral Scanner (MSS) on board the early Landsats. So what happened to these RBV images, and are they useful today?


What’s a Vidicon?

A vidicon is a television camera tube that formed an image by focusing light onto a photoconductive faceplate. An electron beam scanned the faceplate, detecting light intensity for each scan line. The beam then bounced back by an electrically charged area. The resulting picture was made up of about 5,000 separate scan lines (compared to 525 for a traditional television picture).


Every picture has a story to tell
June 8, 1981, Landsat 3, Return Beam Vidicon — Madagascar
Sketch of Landsat 1, formerly known as the Earth Resources Technology Satellite (ERTS)


Additional story information


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Personal comm.: John Dwyer, Chief, Science and Applications Branch, USGS EROS;  John Faundeen, Archivist and Chief, Office of Communications & Outreach, USGS EROS; Chris Crawford, USGS EROS

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