Jan 22, 2019 | Updated: 08:49 AM EST

SMAP Launch Promises New View of Earth’s Soil—From Space

Jan 31, 2015 04:21 PM EST


As climate change issues intensify, and many countries face continuing droughts, NASA's newest mission plans to offer a bit of assistance in confronting a drying Earth. Sent into orbit just this morning, Saturday Jan. 31 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, NASA's Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission plans to give researchers and farmers vital information about the moisture of any given soil on the face of the Earth.

While the news of ample wetness in soil in some 2 mile stretch of Cambodia may not seem like national news, soil moisture is undoubtedly vital data in not only the planning but also execution of agricultural calendars. Though it may seem innocuous to the average consumer, to farmers and to climate researchers, this mission has implications that will affect millions, and perhaps every person on the face of the Earth as it will lead to more effective and well-planned agricultural practices.

Designed to detect the moisture content in land surfaces, and also determine whether land is frozen or not during its three-year mission in Earth's outer orbit, the SMAP spacecraft is planning to give environmental researchers a whole new view of the planet on a global scale by providing measurements for virtually every geographic location as it orbits the Earth.

"The relevance is (soil moisture) is a pretty sensitive indicator of future water availability and can be used in climate models to help improve forecasts," Project Manager for SMAP, Kent Kellogg says. "One of the really nice things about this mission is we have a lot of relevance for climate science, but the data is also very useful for everyday practical applications. It will improve weather forecasting significantly, drought and flood forecasting, food productivity and diseases."

The satellite will be capable of looking beneath the clouds, vegetation and other surfaces, and will produce new global maps every two to three days. "It's unique because for the first time they are combining a radar instrument, which has a really fine resolution and detail in what it sees, and also a radiometer, which can see through clouds and has other benefits," researcher with the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder and the Data Management Lead for the SMAP mission, Amanda Leon says.

Before now, climatologists have been able to estimate and predict massive storms affecting humidity and moisture in the atmosphere, however, knowing when and where a drought will hit has been an elusive estimation. But not for long. While in orbit around the Earth, SMAP will begin to take measurements of the Earth every two days, and with this new data, NASA will be able to create patterns and trends to better address the onset of droughts in the future and to let farmers know when and where will be the best place to sow their seeds in the soil.

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