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NASA's Space Cowboy SMAP Spins Up its Lasso

Feb 27, 2015 01:20 PM EST

There's a new cowboy in town, and he's getting ready to wrangle in some game-changing data about our planet's water. NASA's new SMAP satellite has successfully deployed its massive antenna - a structure that engineers at the agency's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) say is not unlike a giant lasso.

After the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) spacecraft saw a perfect launch on Jan. 31, it has been prepping to go to work. Like its name implies, the SMAP satellite will be taking an incredibly detailed and close look at our planet's soil moisture - able to discern drought conditions from muddy or even frozen ground.

And they're getting that closer look with the help of SMAP's unique "low-mass rotating deployable mesh reflector antenna system," called a reflector boom assembly.

"It is the first-ever spinning and precision mass-balanced deployable mesh reflector antenna, and is the largest spinning mesh reflector ever deployed in space," the JPL bragged in a recent release. "The reflector boom assembly enables SMAP to meet its requirements for high accuracy and high spatial resolution in its soil moisture measurements."

They added that in a month's time, the satellite will be taking final maneuvers and tests to position itself in a near-polar orbit. Then, the now spinning "lasso" will spin up to nearly 15 revolutions per minute, achieving a 620-mile (1,000-kilometer) coverage area that should allow the spacecraft to map the entire Earth every two to three days. (Scroll to read on...)

Still, it should be noted that SMAP is certainly an expensive cowboy to hire. The state-of-the-art satellite cost the agency an estimated $300 million dollars, all just to look at water trapped in dirt. Compared to our vast oceans, natural and man-made reservoirs, and even the moisture trapped in our atmosphere's clouds, soil moisture is just a single drop in the bucket.

However, Kent Kellogg, the SMAP project manager at the JPL, argues that this drop makes some big ripples.

"The water present in soil is a small but critically important part of Earth's water cycle," he said in a statement.

He explained that by measuring soil moisture, NASA can predict the success of various agricultural endeavors, the ability of regions to support plant life, and even the rate at which natural groundwater will be able to recover in thirsty regions - if ever.

It also has more immediate benefits, too. The laboratory's team recently pressed its case that SMAP will "allow scientists to monitor droughts and better predict flooding caused by rainfall or snowmelt - information that can save lives and property."

It will also improve how our weathermen and climatologists make predictions, Michael Michael Ek of the NOAA, added in a statement.

"Better soil moisture observations lead to better land-atmosphere interaction in weather forecasting models and ultimately to a better prediction of temperature and precipitation," he explained. "Weather models need good initial observations of the land surface, or you're starting from the wrong place."

Still, don't be expecting your local weatherman to become an accurate 'seer-of-storms' overnight. As things stand, SMAP is still Texas two-stepping its way over to where it needs to be, and even then it will be some time more before the rodeo really starts.

The first release of SMAP soil moisture data is expected within nine months, but fully validated scientific data is expected to be released half-a-year after that.

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

- follow Brian on Twitter @BS_ButNoBS.

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