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Will NASA’s SMAP help us understand climate change?

Even in 2015, weather prediction is a laughably inaccurate science. Gathering data from above Earth (rather than on it) would make things much easier, which is exactly the goal of NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission, which launched Saturday. The SMAP module will allow scientists to monitor moisture levels just below Earth’s surface, making weather, climate change, drought and flood predictions far more accurate.

“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. “Each mission measures key variables that affect Earth’s environment. SMAP will provide new insights into the global water, energy and carbon cycles. Combining data from all our orbiting missions will give us a much better understanding of how the Earth system works.”

Weather on Earth is a product of carbon, energy and water cycles, and SMAP uses both radar and radiometer tools to measure the moisture content in the top two inches of soil. It can even do so through clouds and moderate vegetation cover. Since vegetation is directly linked to soil moisture, it should help with crop yield estimates as well.

SMAP can also detect whether ground is frozen or thawed, giving scientists a better idea of Springtime melts and changes in the growing season. That should, in turn, assist in estimating how much carbon plants are removing from the atmosphere, a sort of barometer in the fight against climate change.

“SMAP will improve the daily lives of people around the world,” said Simon Yueh, SMAP project scientist at JPL. “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.”

After a 90-day calibration period, SMAP will deploy its instruments and antennae and move to its final operational orbit. From there, it will orbit Earth pole to pole every 98.5 minutes, repeating the same ground track every eight days. Earth’s entire equatorial regions will be measured every three days at a projected resolution of 5.6 miles.

“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.