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Marketplace Morning Report

NASA’s new satellite attracts data-hungry businesses

Jan 29, 2015
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SMAP stands for Soil Moisture Active Passive – a reference to the sensors on board. The satellite will scan the Earth’s soil for moisture down to about 5 cm of depth … once it gets aloft. Thursday’s launch was scrubbed because of poor wind conditions. NASA will try again on Friday.

Bradley Doorn, program manager of NASA’s Water Resources Applied Research Program, says the mission has several primary purposes: “One largely is drought, and understanding drought better but also things like flood forecasting and weather forecasting. The information is unprecedented.”

The $916 million, three-year mission has attracted the interest of hundreds of government agencies, private sector companies, environmental groups and universities — 45 so-called “early adopters” have already started working with NASA to prepare to use the satellite’s data. 

City University of New York and the New York City Department of Environmental Protection want the data for management of the city’s drinking-water supply. The World Food Program plans on using the data for flood forecasting. Doorn says John Deere, Environment Canada, and Willis Re, a reinsurance company, are also preparing to use the soil moisture data.

Doorn says it isn’t unusual for NASA to partner with other groups, but NASA has been trying to get organizations involved earlier on in the process. “Soil moisture is such a critical measurement that many users readily see as needed, so they immediately are drawn to it. There are a lot of people hungry for data, and hungry for this type of information,” he says.

The satellite scans the Earth’s surface with microwaves, which can slightly penetrate soil, and interprets the reflected waves for signs of moisture. The observatory also scans the Earth’s natural microwave emissions. 

And if you’re curious about what the satellite will hear while it’s out in the atmosphere, NASA’s SoundCloud account has you covered:

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