NASA Launches Groundbreaking Soil Moisture Mapper

Written by: Lisa Stelzner

Primary Source: Daily Dose of Science Blog

A new NASA satellite that will record measurements on soil moisture all over the world for three years has just been successfully launched. Its full name is the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory, and it has radar and radiometer equipment that can penetrate vegetation and clouds to two inches into the soil to create our most accurate soil moisture maps ever from a satellite.  It also has the capability of detecting if the ground is frozen or not.  All this data is very useful to scientists, weather forecasters and farmers because they will be able to better keep track of drought conditions, warn of famine events that could occur around the globe, and forecast crop yields for the year.  Knowing when the ground thaws in the spring or freezes in the fall can also help scientists track the length of the growing season and determine how much carbon plants are able to store. The soil moisture data can even be used to save human lives that could be threatened by major flooding events from saturated soil or rapid snowmelt.

SMAP will be able to pass over equatorial regions of the Earth every three days, and every two days it will pass over higher latitudes.  It will produce soil moisture maps at a 9-km (5.6-mi) resolution, which means it won’t be able to help farmers distinguish between minor differences in soil moisture across portions of their fields, but it is frequent enough that moisture in an area can be closely monitored after rainfall, snowfall or drought.

It will take 90 days for SMAP to become fully operational – the instrument boom and antenna have to be deployed and it has to move to the proper location in its orbit of Earth.  Nine months from now, the first soil data is expected to be released (though it won’t be calibrated until 15 months from now).

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Lisa Stelzner
I'm a plant biology PhD student studying monarch butterflies in Michigan, but I'm interested in lots of other types of science, too. I am interested in how breeding monarch butterflies choose their habitat based on floral species richness and abundance. Few studies have been conducted on optimal foraging theory when it involves an organism searching for two different kinds of resources, and butterflies are an ideal study system to investigate this, since many species are ovipositing specialists and only lay eggs on one species of hostplant, but are feeding generalists and nectar from a broad variety of flowering forbs.