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News last update:25 Mar 2019

International Space Station to provide agricultural data

Ecostress, an instrument attached to the International Space Station, is to gather data on how plants use water.

Ecostress stands for ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station. This new instrument has been attached to the International Space Station in 2018. Its mission is to gather data on how plants use water across the worl, reports EurekAlert!

The Ecostress instrument is to help scientists answer 3 questions:

  • How do plants respond to drought?
  • What’s happening with plants’ water use over the course of a day?
  • Can vulnerability to drought be reduced through more monitoring?

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Image of the International Space Station. The Ecostress which is attached to it is taking measurements at various times of day, thanks to the Space Station's unique orbit. - Photo: ANP
Image of the International Space Station. The Ecostress which is attached to it is taking measurements at various times of day, thanks to the Space Station's unique orbit. - Photo: ANP

Using temperature to measure water use

“Technically, the instruments are measuring surface temperature, which reflects the heat stress of plants,” explains Joshua Fisher of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Fisher is the science lead on the Ecostress mission. “By measuring the temperature, we are able to tell how much water plants are using. For example, if you have two plants and water one, the one that has more water will be cooler.”

The system is taking measurements at various times of day, thanks to the Space Station’s unique orbit. According the the scientists that’s important, since plants function differently throughout the day.

Calculate evapotranspiration

Using the temperature data from Ecostress, scientists are able to calculate evapotranspiration – the amount of water evaporating from the surface of the Earth and from plants. “And for farmers, this information is the number 1 requirement for irrigation. It’s useful for them to know how much to water plants. And it helps indicate future droughts and weather changes.”

The information can show which plants are being more efficient with their water and which are stressed because they don’t have enough. It can do this on scale of down to 230 square feet.

“We are working with water managers and agricultural specialists who want these data so they can get them to the farmers they work with,” Fisher says. “We have a whole office at NASA that connects societal users with our data so it can be used to help farmers and others make better decisions.”

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