Nasa to launch satellite that can detect soil moisture for drought, flood monitoring

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 31 January, 2015, 3:20pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 31 January, 2015, 3:23pm

An unmanned Delta 2 rocket is being prepared for launch today to put a Nasa satellite into orbit that is expected to improve drought monitoring and flooding forecasts.

The 39-metre-tall rocket, built and flown by United Launch Alliance, is scheduled to lift off from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 2.20 GMT (10.20pm Hong Kong time).

Launch originally was planned for Thursday but was delayed for 24 hours due to high winds, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration said.

United Launch Alliance, a partnership of Lockheed Martinand Boeing, postponed the flight for one more day so that technicians could repair insulation on the rocket that had become detached during Thursday’s launch attempt.

Perched on top of the rocket is Nasa’s Soil Moisture Active Passive observatory, or SMAP, which is to spend at least three years making precise measurements of the amount of water in earth’s topsoil.

Soil moisture accounts for less than 1 per cent of the planet’s total water reservoir, with 97 per cent in the earth’s oceans and nearly all of the rest locked in ice, said SMAP lead scientist Dara Entekhabi of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But the tiny amount of soil moisture links the planet’s overall environmental systems, its water, energy and carbon cycles, as well as determines whether particular regions are hit by drought or flooding.

“It’s the metabolism of the system,” Entekhabi said during a pre-launch news conference.

Currently, scientists rely largely on computer models to account for soil moisture. SMAP is designed to provide hard numbers of the amount of water in the soil and to do so worldwide, every two to three days.

The launch of the 950-kg spacecraft and three years of operations is costing NASA US$916 million.