SMAP satellite will help scientists track drought and improve weather forecasts

Jan 28, 2015

Video still of the SMAP satellite
Credit NASA

Scientists are looking forward to using a new satellite that will help them track California's ongoing drought and create more accurate and longer-term forecasts.

It's known as SMAP (Soil Moisture Active Passive) and is scheduled to launch at Vandenberg Air Force Base Thursday morning at 6:20 a.m.

It's main purpose is to observe the entire surface of the Earth with a focus on soil moisture and the world's freeze and thaw zones.

Only a small fraction of the water on Earth is held within soil at any given moment, but that moisture plays a huge role in the planet's biosphere.

Dr. Bradley Doorn is the SMAP applications lead with NASA and says several scientists, including those monitoring the California drought, are eager to get this key information.

"They do know soil moisture is important and they do know they need better soil moisture [data]," said Doorn during a SMAP press conference earlier this month. "Adding this level of direct measurements is going to make a big impact."

Doorn says currently the soil moisture information is mostly in the form of modeled data that comes from a sparse set of ground stations measuring precipitation. 

A Delta II rocket will carry the satellite into orbit. SMAP was partially built here in California at the Jet Propulsion laboratory in Pasadena at a cost of $916 million. That figure includes the launch and three years of operation.


SMAP isn't the only payload on this Delta II rocket. Scientists from Cal Poly are also eagerly awaiting the launch too.

Ryan Nugent with Cal Poly's CubeSat Program says a weather satellite called the ExoCube III is being sent into space to measure various gasses in the upper atmosphere.

"This is a huge milestone for Cal Poly," said Nugent."It's the tenth satellite that we've worked on, the tenth CubeSat specifically, that we've worked on at Cal Poly, so we're really excited for this launch and more excited that it's launching right out of our backyard at Vandenberg."

In addition to the ExoCube, two other satellites are also onboard the rocket... for a total of four.