Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP)

Video from: NASA Climate Change If all goes well NASA will launch the Soil Moisture Active Passive (or SMAP for short) from Vandenberg Air Force Base (VAFB) Thursday January 29th. If for some reason they miss the launch window the launch may be rescheduled for January 30th. For those of you that don’t know, SMAP is basically an orbiting observatory providing information about each spot on the globe every 2-3 days for a period of 3 years. It will monitor the top 5cm of soil for changes in water content by examining the backscatter (the reflected) microwaves emitted from an on-board radar. SMAP also has an on-board radiometer which is slightly more accurate than radar but produces less sharp and coarser imagery (roughly 40km across). Thanks to a highly complex technique of analysis called synthetic aperture radar processing the resolution of SMAP’s imaging will be around 1-3 kilometres (or half a mile to a mile and a half) which will provide an incredibly sharp image of the condition of soil moisture. Now that the science bit is out of the way I want to focus on why I find this exciting. As a geographer, monitoring global soil moisture, including the freezing and thawing of soils, offers a mind boggling array of new study possibilities. Currently the ESA (European Space Agency) have a satellite in orbit called (SMOS) Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity which was launched in 2009. This data combined with the higher resolution imagery produced by SMAP will allow us to better understand the hydrological (water) cycle, better predict extreme weather, plan for droughts or prepare for floods. It will let us better manage agricultural production by tailoring the types of crops grown and monitor when it’s necessary to irrigate.  It will also allow geographer’s to produce studies that require long periods of field observation that are otherwise logistically difficult. SMAP is a geographer’s dream and I cannot wait to see how it revolutionises the ways in which we monitor the ground from space.

** A quick update: the SMAP launch today (29/01/2015) has been delayed until its second launch window tomorrow! (Fingers Crossed)

*** Another quick update: SMAP has yet again missed its launch window thanks to a minor technical problem. Some “debonding” was detected on the boosters insulation prior to launch and repairs are underway. A new launch window is set for tomorrow (31/01/15) 7am EST (12 GMT).


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