Iowa State Researchers Have Stake in European Space Agency Nov. 1 Satellite Launch

October 26th, 2009

AMES, Iowa - Researchers at Iowa State University will be watching when the European Space Agency launches a new satellite Nov. 1. That's because the information the satellite will gather is an important part of their research efforts.

The European Space Agency will launch the Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity (SMOS) satellite Nov. 1 at 7:50 p.m. Iowa time. SMOS is the world's first soil moisture remote sensing satellite. It will generate global maps of soil moisture every two to three days for at least the next three years. The satellite also will map the salinity of the world's oceans.

"These data will help us better understand Earth's weather and climate," said Brian Hornbuckle, associate professor of agronomy at Iowa State.

Hornbuckle and his research group are official members of the SMOS team, which consists of scientists throughout the world. Team members will develop models that translate the raw remote sensing signal measured by SMOS in space to soil moisture and ocean salinity. They also will perform ground experiments to verify that the measurements from the satellite match what is happening on the ground.

"Our group will be active in both activities," Hornbuckle said. "We will assess the effect of dew and precipitation intercepted by crops on the satellite's ability to measure soil moisture. We also will compare our ground measurements of soil moisture with the SMOS measurements."

Those ground measurements are being collected on 200 acres of Iowa State research farmland south of campus. On-site equipment measures soil moisture, precipitation, radiation and evapotranspiration. Remote sensing equipment is taken to the field once a year, to see if data from the on-site monitoring matches data from the remote monitoring.

Hornbuckle is principal investigator for the project, which also involves researchers from the University of Iowa and the USDA National Laboratory for Agriculture and the Environment at Iowa State. It is funded by a $1.3 million, five-year grant from NASA. 

Hornbuckle has made three trips to Europe to report on the work at Iowa State. "Our participation in the SMOS mission will help us prepare for a more active role in a similar soil moisture mission being planned by NASA that is scheduled for launch in 2014," he said.

"The ultimate goal is to someday use this type of information in conjunction with models to forecast soil moisture conditions, the weather and to detect climate change," he said.


Editor's Note: Hornbuckle's research group will host an SMOS Launch Party in 3140 Agronomy Hall beginning at 7 p.m. on Nov. 1. Team members will give an overview presentation of the satellite mission and Iowa State's involvement, before watching the satellite launch live at 7:50 p.m. Refreshments will be served and the public is invited. For more information, visit here.


Brian Hornbuckle, Agronomy, (515) 294-9868,

Susan Thompson, Agriculture and Life Sciences Communication Service, (515) 294-0705,