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New NASA mission to detect the use of plant water from space

ECOSTRESS will measure the temperature of plants from space. Researchers will be able to use the temperature data to better understand how much water facilities need and how they respond to water shortages. Credit: USDA

Doctors learn a lot about patient health by taking the temperature. An elevated temperature or fever can be a sign of disease. The same applies to plants, but their global temperatures are more difficult to measure than individual humans.

It will change thanks to a new NASA instrument that will soon be installed at the International Space Station, called ECOSTRESS, or ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station. ECOSTRESS measures the temperature of plants from space. This allows researchers to determine the use of plant water and to study how drought conditions affect the health care.

Plants draw water from the earth and when heated by the sun, the water is released through the pores on the leaves of the plants through a process called transpiration. This cools the plant down, much like sweating does in humans. But if there is not enough water available for the plants, they close their pores to save water, which causes their temperatures to rise.

Plants use the same pores to absorb carbon dioxide from the photosynthesis atmosphere ̵

1; the process they use to convert carbon dioxide and water to the sugar they use as food. If they continue to experience insufficient access to water or "water stress," they eventually starve or overheat and die.

ECOSTRESS data will show these changes in the plants' temperatures, giving insight into their health and water use, while water managers still have time to correct the oil balance in agriculture.

"When a plant is so stressed that it turns brown, it's often too late to recover," says Simon Hook, ECOSTRESS, a major researcher at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. "But measurement of the plant's temperature allows you to see that a plant is stressed before it reaches that point."

A simulation of ECOSTRESS soil temperature data around California's Salton Sea (dark blue area, upper left). Cooler areas are shown in blue and green, warmer areas are in yellow and red. The south of the lake, which seems green, is mostly farmland and other surrounding areas is desert. ECOSTRESS soil temperature data will be used to create a evapotranspiration product that can be used to monitor the stress of the plant. Credit: NASA / JPL-Caltech

These temperature measurements are also considered to be an early indicator of potential drought. When plants in a certain area begin to show signs of water tension through elevated temperatures, it is likely to be a farm dryer. Having this information in advance gives the agricultural community the chance to prepare and / or respond accordingly.

"ECOSTRESS enables us to monitor rapid changes in field voltage tension, enabling earlier and more accurate estimates of how returns will be affected," said Martha Anderson, an ECOSTRESS scientist with the US Department of Agriculture in Beltsville, Maryland. "Even short-term moisture stress, if it occurs during a critical stage of growth, can significantly affect productivity."

ECOSTRESS will take a trip to the space station on a NASA-based SpaceX cargo mission scheduled to start from the Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on June 29th. When it arrives, it will be installed on the outside of the station's Japanese Exposed Facility Unit.

During the next year, the ECOSTRESS Space Station uses unique low-rise Earth to collect data across multiple areas of the field at different times of the day. The instrument will produce detailed images of areas as small as 43 by 76 meters (40 to 70 meters) -in the size of a small farm every three to five days.

Other instruments in space can make measurements at the same level of detail or at different times of the day – but not both. ECOSTRESS & Dual capacity makes it particularly important that researchers try to better understand our natural ecosystems and others who work with improved food safety and water management.

"As water resources become more critical to our growing population, we need to track exactly how much water our crops need," said ECOSTRESS science lead Josh Fisher from JPL. "We need to know when plants are exposed to drought and we need to know which parts of the ecosystem are more vulnerable due to water stress."

Although it is not part of its primary mission, ECOSTRESS temperature data will also be valuable for other studies that require temperature information, such as detection and characterization of volcanoes, fires and heat waves.

Explore further:
NASA's new space "botanist" arrives at the launch site

More information:
For more information about ECOSTRESS, visit www.nasa.gov/ecostress

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