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SMAP launch successful

SMAP, engineering, Ohio State University, Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, NASA, MIT, climate change, drought, soil moisture, researchSMAP satellite successfully launches Saturday morning from California.

A NASA satellite successfully launched Saturday morning, paving the way for detailed monitoring of global soil moisture.

Known as the Soil Moisture Active Passive satellite, or “SMAP," OSU Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering (ECE) staff and students had their hand in the research that made it possible.

The Electroscience Lab graduate students involved include Jeff Ouellette, Mustafa Aksoy, as well as post-doctoral researcher Dr. Alexandra Bringer and ECE Chair and Professor Joel Johnson.

Johnson said approximately six different OSU projects have contributed to SMAP research over the years.

SMAP uses both a radar and microwave radiometer to monitor the Earth, Johnson said. The radiometer measurements are susceptible to corruption by man-made Radio Frequency Interference (RFI) from other transmitters.

Since 2001, Johnson's team has focused on separating RFI from the natural microwave signals used in measuring soil moisture levels. Over time, he said, NASA determined this could be applicable to the SMAP project and RFI detection technologies were added  to the SMAP design in 2009.

SMAP launched at 9:20 a.m. from the Vandenberg Air Force Base on California’s central coast. Now in orbit, the SMAP satellite will soon produce the most detailed global maps of soil moisture yet, helping improve the understanding of Earth’s water and carbon cycles, as well as the ability to manage water resources. 

“SMAP is one of the most exciting projects in the remote sensing field,” Aksoy said. “It’s very exciting to see it is finally in orbit.”

“It’s a good ending point in our graduate careers,” Ouellette said.

Bringer said data from SMAP does not become available until later, when they will begin analyzing it in real time.

During the post-launch press conference, NASA thanked those university students from around the country who participated in the SMAP research.

NBC News reports, “Currently, scientists rely on computer models to account for soil moisture. SMAP is designed to provide hard numbers on the amount of water in the soil worldwide. NASA's price tag for the launch, spacecraft and three years of operation is $916 million.” 

Wired Science reports, “SMAP will spend three years taking the most accurate readings ever of soil moisture around the world. That’s right: It will measure how wet the dirt is. From space.” 

Looking forward, Johnson will continue his work on SMAP research.

"It is a three-year mission, but often Earth science satellites last much longer," he said. We will be working to help improve RFI removal throughout." 

Ouellette and Aksoy hope for permanent positions with NASA after graduation so they may continue their work.

OSU/SMAP-related articles elsewhere:

- Great update and summary from the OSU Electroscience Laboratory webpage.

- Check out this 2001 article about the first OSU grant project for SMAP.

- Here is an article about Johnson’s research