NASA Soil Moisture Mission Begins Science Operations

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High-resolution global soil moisture map from SMAP’s combined radar and radiometer instruments Southern U.S. SMAP soil moisture retrievals from April 27, 2015 High-resolution global soil moisture map from SMAP’s combined radar and radiometer instruments, acquired between May 4 and May 11, 2015 during SMAP’s commissioning phase. The map has a resolution of 5.6 miles (9 kilometers). The data gap is due to turning the instruments on and off during testing. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/GSFC

NASA’s new Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission to map global soil moisture and detect whether soils are frozen or thawed has begun science operations.
Launched Jan. 31 on a minimum three-year mission, SMAP will help scientists understand links among Earth’s water, energy and carbon cycles; reduce uncertainties in predicting climate; and enhance our ability to monitor and predict natural hazards like floods and droughts. SMAP data have additional practical applications, including improved weather forecasting and crop yield predictions.

A first global view of SMAP’s flagship product, a combined active-passive soil moisture map with a spatial resolution of 5.6 miles (9 kilometers), is available at:

During SMAP’s first three months in orbit, referred to as SMAP’s “commissioning” phase, the observatory was first exposed to the space environment, its solar array and reflector boom assembly containing SMAP’s 20-foot (6-meter) reflector antenna were deployed, and the antenna and instruments were spun up to their full speed, enabling global measurements every two to three days.

The commissioning phase also was used to ensure that SMAP science data reliably flow from its instruments to science data processing facilities at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, and the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.

“Fourteen years after the concept for a NASA mission to map global soil moisture was first proposed, SMAP now has formally transitioned to routine science operations,” said Kent Kellogg, SMAP project manager at JPL. “SMAP’s science team can now begin the important task of calibrating the observatory’s science data products to ensure SMAP is meeting its requirements for measurement accuracy.”

Together, SMAP’s two instruments, which share a common antenna, produce the highest-resolution, most accurate soil moisture maps ever obtained from space. The spacecraft’s radar transmits microwave pulses to the ground and measures the strength of the signals that bounce back from Earth, whereas its radiometer measures microwaves that are naturally emitted from Earth’s surface.

“SMAP data will eventually reveal how soil moisture conditions are changing over time in response to climate and

Southern U.S. SMAP soil moisture retrievals from April 27, 2015, when severe storms were affecting Texas. Top: radiometer data alone. Bottom: combined radar and radiometer data with a resolution of 5.6 miles (9 kilometers). The combined product reveals more detailed surface soil moisture features.

how this impacts regional water availability,” said Dara Entekhabi, SMAP science team leader at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. “SMAP data will be combined with data from other missions like NASA’s Global Precipitation Measurement, Aquarius and Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment to reveal deeper insights into how the water cycle is evolving at global and regional scales.”

The new global image shows dry conditions in the southwestern United States and in Australia’s interior. Moist soil conditions are evident in the U.S. Midwest and in eastern regions of the United States, Europe and Asia. The far northern regions depicted in these SMAP maps do not indicate soil moisture measurements because the ground there was frozen.

Zooming in on the data allows a closer look at the benefits of combining SMAP’s radar and radiometer data. A segment of a SMAP orbit covering the central and southern United States on April 27 is available at:

The upper part of the image shows the radiometer-based estimate of soil moisture at a spatial resolution of 22.5 miles (36 kilometers). The lower part of the image shows the active-passive, or merged high-resolution (5.6 miles, or 9 kilometers), radar- and radiometer-derived soil moisture product.

In the days prior to this data collection, intense rainstorms pounded northern Texas. The areas affected by the storm in northern Texas and the Gulf Coast are visible in much greater detail. Such detail can be used to improve local weather forecasts, assist in monitoring drought in smaller watersheds, and forecast floods.

Over the next year, SMAP data will be calibrated and validated by comparing it against ground measurements of soil moisture and freeze/thaw state around the world at sites representing a broad spectrum of soil types, topography, vegetation and ground cover. SMAP data also will be compared with soil moisture data from existing aircraft-mounted instruments and other satellites.

Preliminary calibrated data will be available in August at designated public-access data archives, including the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado, and Alaska Satellite Facility in Fairbanks. Preliminary soil moisture and freeze/thaw products will be available in November, with validated measurements scheduled to be available for use by the general science community in the summer of 2016.

NASA uses the vantage point of space to increase our understanding of our home planet, improve lives and safeguard our future. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term data records. The agency freely shares this unique knowledge and works with institutions around the world to gain new insights into how our planet is changing.

For more information on SMAP, visit:

For more information about NASA’s Earth science activities, visit:

Traffic Around Mars Gets Busy

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This graphic depicts the relative shapes and distances from Mars for five active orbiter missions plus the planet’s two natural satellites. It illustrates the potential for intersections of the spacecraft orbits. Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Fast Facts:

  • Five active spacecraft are orbiting Mars, an increase of two since last summer
  • An enhanced system warns if two orbiters may approach each other too closely

NASA has beefed up a process of traffic monitoring, communication and maneuver planning to ensure that Mars orbiters do not approach each other too closely. 

Last year’s addition of two new spacecraft orbiting Mars brought the census of active Mars orbiters to five, the most ever. NASA’s Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution (MAVEN) and India’s Mars Orbiter Mission joined the 2003 Mars Express from ESA (the European Space Agency) and two from NASA: the 2001 Mars Odyssey and the 2006 Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO). The newly enhanced collision-avoidance process also tracks the approximate location of NASA’s Mars Global Surveyor, a 1997 orbiter that is no longer working.

It’s not just the total number that matters, but also the types of orbits missions use for achieving their science goals. MAVEN, which reached Mars on Sept. 21, 2014, studies the upper atmosphere. It flies an elongated orbit, sometimes farther from Mars than NASA’s other orbiters and sometimes closer to Mars, so it crosses altitudes occupied by those orbiters. For safety, NASA also monitors positions of ESA’s and India’s orbiters, which both fly elongated orbits.

“Previously, collision avoidance was coordinated between the Odyssey and MRO navigation teams,” said Robert Shotwell, Mars Program chief engineer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. “There was less of a possibility of an issue. MAVEN’s highly elliptical orbit, crossing the altitudes of other orbits, changes the probability that someone will need to do a collision-avoidance maneuver. We track all the orbiters much more closely now. There’s still a low probability of needing a maneuver, but it’s something we need to manage.”

Traffic management at Mars is much less complex than in Earth orbit, where more than 1,000 active orbiters plus additional pieces of inactive hardware add to hazards. As Mars exploration intensifies, though, and will continue to do so with future missions, precautions are increasing. The new process was established to manage this growth as new members are added to the Mars orbital community in years to come.

All five active Mars orbiters use the communication and tracking services of NASA’s Deep Space Network, which is managed at JPL. This brings trajectory information together, and engineers can run computer projections of future trajectories out to a few weeks ahead for comparisons.

“It’s a monitoring function to anticipate when traffic will get heavy,” said Joseph Guinn, manager of JPL’s Mission Design and Navigation Section. “When two spacecraft are predicted to come too close to one another, we give people a heads-up in advance so the project teams can start coordinating about whether any maneuvers are needed.”

The amount of uncertainty in the predicted location of a Mars orbiter a few days ahead is more than a mile (more than two kilometers). Calculating projections for weeks ahead multiplies the uncertainty to dozens of miles, or kilometers. In most cases when a collision cannot be ruled out from projections two weeks ahead, improved precision in the forecasting as the date gets closer will rule out a collision with no need for avoidance action. Mission teams for the relevant orbiters are notified in advance when projections indicate a collision is possible, even if the possibility will likely disappear in subsequent projections. This situation occurred on New Year’s weekend, 2015.

On Jan. 3, automated monitoring determined that two weeks later, MAVEN and MRO could come within about two miles (three kilometers) of each other, with large uncertainties remaining in the exact passing distance. Although that was a Saturday, automatic messages went out to the teams operating the orbiters.

“In this case, before the timeline got short enough to need to plan an avoidance maneuver, the uncertainties shrank, and that ruled out the chance of the two spacecraft coming too near each other,” Guinn said. This is expected to be the usual pattern, with the advance warning kicking off higher-level monitoring and initial discussions about options.

If preparations for an avoidance maneuver were called for, spacecraft commands would be written, tested and approved for readiness, but such commands would not be sent to a spacecraft unless projections a day or two ahead showed probability of a hazardous conjunction. The amount of uncertainty about each spacecraft’s exact location varies, so the proximity considered unsafe also varies. For some situations, a day-ahead projection of two craft coming within about 100 yards (100 meters) of each other could trigger a maneuver.

The new formal collision-avoidance process for Mars is part of NASA’s Multi-Mission Automated Deep-Space Conjunction Assessment Process. A side benefit of it is that information about when two orbiters will be near each other — though safely apart — could be used for planning coordinated science observations. The pair could look at some part of Mars or its atmosphere from essentially the same point of view simultaneously with complementary instruments.

Odyssey, MRO and MAVEN — together with NASA’s two active Mars rovers, Opportunity and Spirit — are part of NASA’s robotic exploration of Mars that is preparing the way for human-crewed missions there in the 2030s and later, in NASA’s Journey to Mars strategy.

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center manages the MAVEN project for the NASA Science Mission Directorate, Washington. MAVEN’s principal investigator is based at the University of Colorado’s Laboratory for Atmospheric and Space Physics. JPL, a division of the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, manages NASA’s Mars Exploration Program and the Odyssey and MRO projects for the Science Mission Directorate. Lockheed Martin Space Systems, Denver, built all three NASA Mars orbiters.

For more about NASA’s Mars Exploration Program, visit: or