A worker is seen preparing the launch gantry to be rolled back from the United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket with Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory onboard, at the Space Launch Complex 2, Wednesday, Jan. 28, 2015, Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif. Scheduled to launch early Thursday morning, SMAP is NASA’s first Earth-observing satellite designed to collect global observations of surface soil moisture and its freeze/thaw state. SMAP will provide high resolution global measurements of soil moisture from space. The data will be used to enhance scientists' understanding of the processes that link Earth's water, energy, and carbon cycles. Photo Credit: (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

Anomaly in SMAP Antenna Erodes Texas Hope to Monitor Drought

NASA's Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission

NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission (NASA)

The radar instrument on NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite observatory which has been touted as the ultimate panacea to deal with Texas and California’s impending drought in the coming years, has developed anomaly in its antenna and stopped all its transmission to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, which is monitoring it.

The radar is one of two science instruments on SMAP used to map global soil moisture and detect whether soils are frozen or thawed and it is crucial for the function of the satellite. The event was reported on July 7, at about 2:16 p.m. PDT, though all other components of the spacecraft continued to operate normally, including the radiometer instrument that is collecting science data.

SMAP was launched on Jan. 31, 2015 to understand links among Earth’s water, energy and carbon cycles; reduce uncertainties in Earth system modeling; and to predict natural hazards like floods and droughts. SMAP data have additional practical applications, including improved weather forecasting and crop yield predictions.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland is responsible for the radiometer instrument and science data products. While verifying the measurements of NASA’s recently launched Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite (SMAP), the Texas Soil Observation Network (TxSON) will give state water agencies critical information for managing the Lone Star State’s limited water.

“The drought has decreased soil moisture so intensely that if it rains, reservoirs don’t fill up,” said Todd Caldwell, a research associate who leads the TxSON project at the University of Texas at Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology. “We haven’t been able to overcome this major depletion of soil water.”

The Texas hill country, west and north of San Antonio and Austin, is no stranger to drought, but 2011 was the worst year in recent memory. “It was the hottest and driest summer in American history,” recalled Carol Ann Sayle, who owns a farm in Austin. “We spent that whole summer trying to irrigate the soil back to life, but everything crisped to death.”

It was expected that with SMAP and TxSON monitoring soil moisture, they will soon have measurements to help them plan more realistically.



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