NASA launched the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) observatory onboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II Rocket into space from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Friday, January 30.

The successful liftoff put SMAP into a 411-by-425-mile, 98.5-minute pole-to-pole orbit of the Earth.

During the three-year mission the satellite will study links between water, energy and carbon cycles driving the Earth. Equipped with radar and radiometer instruments, the spacecraft will observe the top 2-inches of soil to produce the highest-resolution, most accurate soil moisture maps ever obtained from space.

It will also reveal whether the ground is frozen or thawed and detect variations in the timing of spring thaw and changes in the length of the seasons.

The data is expected to help improve climate and weather forecasts and allow scientists to monitor droughts and better predict flooding caused by severe rainfall or snowmelt. The mission will also allow nations to better-forecast crop yields and thus help to create global famine early-warning systems, and help more accurately account for how much carbon plants are removing from Earth’s atmosphere each year.

For the first 90 days after launch the SMAP ground system will be tested to assure that it is fully functional and ready to collect data. The craft will be maneuvered to its final 426-mile, near-polar operational orbit.

The first release of soil moisture data is expected to occur within nine months. Fully validated science data is expected to be released within 13-15 months.


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