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How NASA revolutionized farming

From GPS to autosteer to drought monitors, aerospace has had a big impact on what you do every day.

Mike Wilson

February 27, 2019

5 Slides

Jim Bridenstine stands like an Eagle Scout before a crowd at the 2019 World Ag Expo, sharing unearthly stories about the moon, astronauts, microgravity, satellites, and future journeys to Mars. The former Oklahoma congressman, now NASA administrator, speaks with contagious passion for life beyond planet earth.

“Space has elevated the lives of everyone in the U.S. and across the world,” he tells his audience.

And he’s quick to remind this crowd that farming is never far from NASA’s scope of interests.

“Everything we launch in space has mass and volume, including dirt, water and plants,” he says. “We are trying to reduce that mass and volume so when we travel in space, we get to a point where we can grow food efficiently with minimal nutrients and water.”

NASA is working on that right now with experiments on the International Space Station (ISS). Veggie, or Vegetable Production System, and the Advanced Plant Habitat will eventually provide a means to supply crews with a source of fresh food and a tool for relaxation and recreation.

“We have an eye toward Mars,” says Bridenstine. “It’s not like the moon, which is always with us, part of the earth-moon system; Mars is in its own system and it is only on the same side of the sun every 26 months. So, when we get there we’re going to stay awhile. We have to be able to work and live there for a sustained amount of time.”

If Bridenstine sounds and looks like a youthful scout, it’s because he is, earning Eagle Scout while growing up outside Tulsa before earning a degree at Rice, an MBA at Cornell, then flying E-2C Hawkeye aircraft as an aviator in the U.S. Navy. He served in Congress from 2012 to 2018 when President Trump appointed him head of NASA.

And he’s been touting the agency’s virtues ever since.

“People often say you guys are responsible for powdered drinks and Velcro, but there’s something much broader that NASA contributed to the world,” he says. “Because of space we have transformed how we communicate. Without the satellite there would be no broadband, or XM radio. Many of these communications technologies were born from NASA.”

That includes key technologies most farmers take for granted: Weather monitoring, chlorophyll meters, air purifiers to preserve produce, precision farming, autosteer, self-driving vehicles guided by GPS. All of it comes from humanity’s work in space.

“When you see your weather feed and the green spot indicating rain is coming toward you? Eighty-percent of the data that feeds those numerical weather models comes from satellite feeds built by NASA,” says Bridenstine.

NASA’s role has changed since the moon shots of the late 60s and early 70s. It is set on a return to the moon but this time using reusable, cheaper rockets and ‘tugs’ to move vehicles between earth and moon orbits. A permanent space module will orbit the moon with landers that go back and forth to the moon’s surface. Mars, and a small moon around Jupiter, have the best chances of any life beyond earth, but getting to those places depends on advances in propulsion.

Meanwhile, back home

That Buck Rogers future sounds cool, but much of what NASA does helps earthlings right now – especially farmers. California’s Central Valley depends on water from the north; each year water collects in reservoirs and spring and mountain runoff and is channeled to California’s population in the south. About 25 million state residents are served by water that flows through the California Delta. NASA-developed tools help managers predict water in a better way.

“A third of the water California uses comes from snow pack,” explains Bridenstine. “NASA has technologies to measure that snow pack and convert to a ‘water equivalent’. Another technology can help determine how fast the snow is melting, which helps water managers understand how much they will receive.

In the ‘60s NASA developed LIDAR, a technology that uses light, detection and ranging, to map the moon. Now it’s used to get very precise elevations on earth – to measure the mountains before and after the snow. “We can get really precise measurements forecasting how much water to expect in spring and summer,” says Bridenstine.  LIDAR is also a key tool for autonomous tractors now, with mini LIDAR units that can ‘see’ better than radar.

One NASA satellite is in polar orbit north to south, measuring glaciers and the thickness of polar icecaps; Another hosted payload riding on the ISS is called Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation, or GEDI, measuring vegetation and ecosystems. NASA also flies its “Airborne Snow Observatory” - an airplane full of scientists and instruments - over the Sierra to measure snow pack with infrared radar.

“The technology used to search for water on Mars is now measuring water supplies in California, and the snow surveys help farmers make better decisions on future water supplies for the growing season ahead,” he says.

In a California pilot program NASA has helped farmers understand evaporation and transpiration and come up with precise measurements for water needed for an irrigation plan. The pilot resulted in a 20% cut in water use for a range of vegetables, and reduced nitrate leaching by up to 50% through reduced watering.

“NASA is working to expand these tools for additional crops and regions in the western United States and ultimately the entire US,” he says.

Another tool attached to the ISS, ‘Ecostress,’ detects infrared heat energy coming from plants and measures plant evapo-transpiration levels. It determines water stress on plants long before it’s visible - in some instances two weeks before the human eye.

“What we’re looking for is U.S. cropland evapotranspiration – we want everyone to be able to see online exactly how much water their plants need,” says Bridenstine. The goal here is open evapotranspiration for the entire United States of America.”

Gravity and drought

A program launched in 2002 measure’s earth’s gravity, which is changing all the time. It’s also used to measure potential drought.

NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE Follow-On) program uses two identical satellites flying in polar orbit one after the other. When these satellites pass over a mountain range, the satellite in the lead moves ahead of the follower because the gravity is different over top of the mountain range. Gravity variations include runoff and groundwater stored on land masses. GRACE is one of the tools used by the national drought mitigation center. It can even check aquifers to see when they are being depleted or replenished.  

NASA has done a lot for agriculture. On the other hand, it’s nice to know that farming will be key to success in the race to colonize the planets. Did you ever dream you had such a cool job?

About the Author(s)

Mike Wilson

Senior Executive Editor, Farm Progress

Mike Wilson is the senior executive editor for Farm Progress. He grew up on a grain and livestock farm in Ogle County, Ill., and earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural journalism from the University of Illinois. He was twice named Writer of the Year by the American Agricultural Editors’ Association and is a past president of the organization. He is also past president of the International Federation of Agricultural Journalists, a global association of communicators specializing in agriculture. He has covered agriculture in 35 countries.

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