Artist's rendering of the SMAP instrument. Image: courtesy NASA
Artist’s rendering of the SMAP instrument. Image: courtesy NASA

A new NASA mission led by an MIT professor could provide critical information about global climate change and our planet’s shifting water and food supply. On January 31, NASA launched a satellite into orbit, kicking off a three-year, $916M quest to measure the moisture in Earth’s soil. Dara Entekhabi, MIT’s Bacardi and Stockholm Water Foundations Professor in the Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, is the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) science team leader.

According to NASA, “SMAP’s combined radar and radiometer instruments will peer into the top 2 inches 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.”

The aim? To gain insight into links among planet’s water, energy, and carbon cycles—and to improve scientists’ ability to forecast and monitor floods and droughts. “SMAP has returns in two very distinct areas,” says Entekhabi. “One of them is in fundamental understanding of how the environment works. The second is in the arena of applications. SMAP provides data that affect our everyday lives in terms of dealing with some really serious natural hazards.”

Some 45 “early adopters” have already been recruited to test potential applications. A particular area in which it is hoped SMAP will yield tangible results is crop productivity. According to the mission’s website, climate change is projected to increase the number of undernourished people worldwide anywhere from 5–26% by 2080. Data from the mission could aid in irrigation planning around the world, and its help in predicting crop yields could improve targeting of humanitarian food assistance.

Visit the mission’s homepage for video of the satellite launch and updates on the mission.

Read a Q&A with Entekhabi on MIT News.

Read reports on the mission from Nature and CBS News.

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