Help for farmers…from outer space

This NASA satellite observatory uses an antenna to measure soil moisture in broad swaths. Combined measurements produce global maps every two to three days. (Courtesy of NASA)

If you wanted to find out how water is distributed in soil, what would you do?  Dig a hole?

No, you would go up in the sky to get a better view. At least that was NASA’s answer.

A Delta II rocket carrying the soil moisture satellite before the January 31 launch (© AP Images)

In January, the U.S. space agency launched the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite, designed to collect data on soil moisture around the globe. The orbital observatory uses microwave radar and radiometer instruments to “see” through clouds and vegetation and peer into the top five centimeters of soil to measure its water content, both liquid and frozen. The goal is to better understand Earth’s three fundamental systems: its water, energy and carbon cycles.

Experts expect the satellite to produce the highest-resolution, most accurate soil moisture maps ever obtained. Combined with data from other space missions, they will reveal “deeper insights” into how Earth’s water cycle — the storage and flow of water in the environment — is evolving globally and regionally in response to climate change, said Dara Entekhabi, who heads the project’s science team at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. This information will help improve global climate change projections.

Satellite soil-moisture data can be used to help African farmers learn what kind of crops adapt best to water shortages and soil erosion. (© AP Images)

Farmers worldwide can benefit from the three-year mission because the satellite data will allow them to better manage crops. Governments and international organizations can use the data to forecast floods and droughts more accurately and to improve famine early-warning systems.

The first soil moisture map produced in April showed dry conditions in the southwestern United States and in Australia’s interior, as well as moist conditions in the U.S. Midwest and in eastern regions of the United States, Europe and Asia.