After a delay of two days, NASA successfully launched its first ground-breaking Earth satellite to collect data of the vital soil moisture hidden just beneath our surface by 2 inches to help scientists forecast draughts, rainfall, snowmelt and warn about global famine.
The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory lifted off at 6:22 am PST on Saturday from Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, on United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket.
An hour after liftoff, SMAP separated from the rocket’s second stage into an initial 411- by 425-mile (661- by 685-km) orbit and the ground control activated the communication process and established links and deployed solar panels on the mission. “NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive spacecraft is in excellent health,” announced Kent Kellogg, the SMAP project manager, during a post-launch press conference. “All subsystems are being powered on and checked out as planned,” he said.
SMAP will orbit Earth for 3 years to virtually scan beneath the ground by 2 inches to study the soil moisture and understand the Earth system that links the water, energy and carbon cycles driving our planet.
SMAP’s combined radar and radiometer instruments are strong enough to peer into the top 5 centimeters of soil, through clouds and moderate vegetation cover, day and night, to produce the highest-resolution, most accurate soil moisture maps ever obtained from space, said NASA.
The SMAP mission will help in weather forecast and allow scientists to monitor droughts and better predict flooding caused by severe rainfall or snowmelt, which can save millions of lives and property. Above all, it studies the amount of water in the soil that determines the future of living style on Earth.
“The launch of SMAP completes an ambitious 11-month period for NASA that has seen the launch of five new Earth-observing space missions to help us better understand our changing planet,” said NASA Administrator Charles Bolden.
SMAP also will detect whether the ground is frozen or thawed, find variations in the timing of spring thaw and changes in the length of the growing season providing data for scientists to calculate accurately how much carbon is being removed by plants from Earth’s atmosphere each year.
“The next few years will be especially exciting for Earth science thanks to measurements from SMAP and our other new missions,” said Michael Freilich, director of the Earth Science Division of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
SMAP will orbit Earth every 98.5 minutes, repeating the same ground track every eight days and its 1,000-kilometer measurement swath allows SMAP to cover Earth’s entire equatorial regions every three days and higher latitudes every two days, said NASA. The mission will map global soil moisture with about 9-kilometer resolution, it added.
Simon Yueh, SMAP project scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, said: “Soil moisture data from SMAP has the potential to significantly improve the accuracy of short-term weather forecasts and reduce the uncertainty of long-term projections of how climate change will impact Earth’s water cycle.”
The SMAP team is engaged with many organizations and individuals that see immediate uses for the satellite’s data. Through workshops and tutorials, the SMAP Applications Working Group is collaborating with 45 “early adopters” to test and integrate the mission’s data products into many different applications. Early adopters include weather forecasters from several nations, as well as researchers and planners from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Geological Survey, U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and the United Nations World Food Programme.
The next key stage in 90 days will be the deployment of the spacecraft’s instrument boom and 20-foot- (6-meter)-diameter reflector antenna. The SMAP observatory will be maneuvered to its final 426-mile (685-kilometer), near-polar operational orbit, and the antenna will spin up to 14.6 revolutions per minute.
The first release of SMAP soil moisture data is expected in 9 months and fully validated data will be available within 15 months, said NASA.
Here are some photos provided by NASA: