NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) Mission Setback

I made a note to myself back in January this year of the NASA mission about to be launched called the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite mission.

The satellite had the ability to measure moisture content in the top few centremeters of soil and would be able to cover the landmass of the entire earth every two to three days. Collecting data on soil moisture content has foreseeable applications such as use in climate modelling and perhaps assist in forecasting weather and significant weather events. Another significant use of the data was to assist agriculture.

Here is the main site for the project.

The satellite was designed to collect data with a resolution of about 9 kilometres, meaning that for any 81 square kilometre patch of earth, the instrument could provide its moisture content.

Agricultural uses could be significant. Although farmers no doubt keep track of the weather and the amount of rain overtime to get an idea of planting times and irrigation needs, the ability to obtain data on available moisture in the soil at any time to adjust their practice could have positive impacts on water use, fertiliser (including pesticide and herbicide) application timing and quantity used, reduced likelihood of agricultural input run-off, and increased crop yield. Given the likelihood the food production will continue to be based on working large tracts of land for at least the foreseeable future along with the growing population, such advances could help with precision food production and target other regions for increased production.

The mission has provided some incredible maps of moisture content so far.

Unfortunately the radar that provided the greatest resolution has stopped sending data (story here). Although the mission will continue to provide data from a second instrument, the resolution will be reduced to 40 kilometre sections.

The importance of this mission is in the use of such technology to provide freely accessible data to food growers wherever they are in the world. There is still a need to educate growers how best to use the data to achieve some of these potential outcomes. But the potential for its future use, particularly if the resolution increases, to improve food production throughout the world may be the difference for some between merely subsisting and thriving, for others it may be the difference between mere subsisting or not.

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