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Planet Care

116: ECOSTRESS

Problem:

With the increasing number of heat waves, droughts, forest fires and flooding, it is vital to make precise observations of the damage and how to repair it.

Solution:

A precision instrument is in place to survey the temperature of plants growing in specific locations on the Planet over the course of a solar year. These measurements give scientists insight into the effects of events such as heat waves and droughts on crops which can be used for vital precision farming.


It is called ECOSTRESS (Ecosystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station). This is a multispectral thermal infrared radiometer developed by Joshua B. Fisher and a team at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, Calif., at a cost of under US$30 million.

ECOSTRESS was selected in July 2014 as part of the “Earth Venture” program of small, targeted science investigations; the first 1,200 lb. (550 kg) payload would monitor the mechanism of “transpiration”, whereby water is lost from plants through tiny pores in their leaves, as well as evaporation from the surrounding soil. When examined together, this analysis is known as “evapotranspiration”.

It was delivered to the ISS by the SpaceX Dragon on July 3, 2018. Astronauts performed a six-hour spacewalk to prepare for ECOSTRESS to arrive.

A Canadian robotic arm took ECOSTRESS off its cargo spacecraft and passed it to Kibo, the Japanese robotic arm for installation. ECOSTRESS then began to use the space station’s power and communications to collect data and send it down to Fisher and his team.

The program is managed by NASA’s Earth System Science Pathfinder program at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Its data was published via the open-access TERN Data Discovery Portal in Australia.

In January 2019, Joshua Fisher presenting his research at the Soil Science Society of America International Soils Meeting, Jan. 6-9, 2019 in San Diego, commented,

The instrument measures variations of ground temperatures to within a few tenths of a degree, and it does so with unprecedented detail: It’s able to detect temperature changes at various times of day over areas the size of a football field.

These measurements help scientists assess plant health and response to water shortages, which can be an indicator of future drought. They can also be used in observing heat trends, spotting wildfires and detecting volcanic activity.

When in July and August 2019, Europe was hit by two massive heat waves, their extremes of temperature, +110° Fahrenheit (+44.1° Celsius) were carefully measured by ECOSTRESS which mapped the surface, or ground temperature, of four European cities – Rome, Paris, Madrid and Milan.

In the images, hotter temperatures appeared in red and cooler temperatures appeared in blue. They showed how the central core of each city was much hotter than the surrounding natural landscape due to the urban heat island effect, a result of urban surfaces storing and re-radiating heat throughout the day. Soon after, ECOSTRESS captured imagery of fires in the Amazon regions of Brazil and Bolivia. It was also used to estimate terrestrial latent heat flux in the Heihe River basin of Northwest China.

Tomorrow’s solution: ecovelopes are friendlier

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