Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP): Aw, SMAP!

January 30th, 2015 by Kathryn Hansen

For the time being, NASA’s Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) satellite is waiting to rocket into orbit.

Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer

Credit: NASA/Kate Ramsayer

Media packed up their cameras after the first scheduled launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California was scrubbed on January 29, 2015 (above) due to upper level winds. The second targeted launch window on January 30 was delayed to January 31, “pending completion of minor repairs to the United Launch Alliance Delta II launch vehicle,” according to a NASA press statement.

Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Credit: NASA/Bill Ingalls

Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP): The Reveal

January 29th, 2015 by Kathryn Hansen



The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission is one step closer to launch. On January 28, the mobile service tower (top) rolled back to reveal the Delta II rocket (second image). Liftoff of the Delta II rocket and its satellite cargo is targeted for launch from Vandenberg’s Space Launch Complex 2 at 6:20 a.m. PST on Thursday, January 29.


NASA administrator Charles Bolden attended the rollback event, where he spoke to a group gathered to watch the reveal. “What will SMAP measure?” asked a second-grade student (above).


Bolden was not the only one answering that question on the day before launch. SMAP scientists Dara Entekhabi, Randy Koster, Wade Crow, and Susan Moran (above, from left to right) started the day explaining the mission’s science to a gathering of social media mavens. So, what will SMAP measure? Visit the mission page to find out.

Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP): SMAP Set to Investigate Earth

January 28th, 2015 by Kate Ramsayer


SMAP is ready to go!

The Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) mission, which will map the water content of soils worldwide, passed its “launch readiness review” on January 27. There is also a favorable weather forecast for a launch on January 29. So the SMAP team is ready.

“It has reached the point where it’s an amazing energy rush right now,” said Christine Bonniksen, SMAP program executive. “It’s kind of like when you’re listening to Beethoven’s 6th symphony, when you’re getting to the big crescendo, and everybody can feel it coming. It’s amazing to watch all these folks buckle down.”

Bonniksen spoke at a press briefing marking two days before the scheduled launch. She highlighted the role of SMAP among other missions studying our planet: Once it’s in orbit and operational, SMAP will join 19 other NASA satellites and sensors with an eye on Earth. The start of the SMAP mission also will complete a series of five Earth science launches in the past year.

“We’re really looking forward to the synergism from all these instruments,” she said.

Soil moisture factors into three major cycles of Earth’s environment — water, energy, and carbon — said Dara Entekhabi, SMAP science team lead. The three cycles work together like gears in a clock, linked together by soil moisture and the freezing and thawing of the ground. With SMAP, scientists will improve models of climate and weather forecasting, and better understand the workings of the planet.

“SMAP will peer into the metabolism of Earth’s environment,” Entekhabi said.

Operation IceBridge: Antarctic 2014: From Gamma Rays to Glaciers

December 2nd, 2014 by Craig Swenson

Hi, my name is Craig Swenson. I’m one of the newest members of the NASA Operation IceBridge operation, having joined the Airborne Topographical Mapper (ATM) team days before being deployed to Punta Arenas, Chile to join the rest of the IceBridge team.

sonntag and swenson

Airborne Topographic Mapper team members John Sonntag (left) and Craig Swenson aboard NASA’s DC-8 airborne laboratory. Credit: NASA / Jim Yungel

I have been actively involved with other NASA projects for several years, but am new to the world of cryospheric science and lidar instruments. For the past six years I was a member of the NASA Swift Science Operations Team and Ultraviolet/Optical Telescope Team while earning my Ph.D. in Astronomy and Astrophysics at the Pennsylvania State University. Working with a NASA satellite program was an exciting adventure, with each day bringing new discoveries to investigate and new problems to solve. My area of expertise involved searching for and studying flares (sudden increases in the observed brightness) found in the X-ray, ultraviolet and optical signals of a class of astrophysical objects known as gamma ray bursts. As a part of the IceBridge team I will be using the skills I developed while looking to the heavens to help determine the thickness of the ice below me.

aboard the dc-8

A view inside the NASA DC-8. Credit: NASA / Jim Yungel

Working on an airborne observatory can be very different from working on a satellite mission. For instance, I did not need to bring my passport with me to work every day (just in case we land in a different country), and if an instrument malfunctions while in flight, we have the chance to get replacement parts and fix it. But in many ways it is very much the same, with new and challenging problems that need to be addressed every day, constantly looking for ways to improve our methods and obtain the most accurate measurements possible. It is an exciting way to live and work.

Looking out the window of the NASA DC-8 aircraft, I have witnessed sights that were previously only available to me through nature specials on television. The vastness of the Antarctic Peninsula is something that I had not fully appreciated until now. There is a certain beauty to be found in the stark emptiness I see out of my window each day, and it is amazing to hear from my co-workers how much the ice has changed and receded in the few years they have been collecting data here.

Shackleton Range

Mountains of Antarctica’s Shackleton Range. Credit: NASA

I feel privileged to have the opportunity to work on such an important project. Operation IceBridge is instrumental in collecting data and providing answers that are pertinent to our everyday lives and to our future. Understanding the continually changing nature of our planet, and what influence we as humans are playing in the change, is something that affects every man, woman and child on earth and it brings me a sense of accomplishment and wonder to be part of a NASA mission that is addressing such pressing issues.

Operation IceBridge: Antarctic 2014: East and West: The Geography of Antarctica

November 19th, 2014 by George Hale

At first, the geography of Antarctica might seem a little confusing. From space, much of Antarctica looks featureless and white, meaning there are few features to guide you. It’s one thing to know that Pine Island Glacier is in West Antarctica, but for some it might be unclear which part of the frozen continent is which.

In the most general terms, Antarctica can be divided into three major areas: West Antarctica, East Antarctica, and the Antarctic Peninsula.


An overview map of Antarctica produced by the British Antarctic Survey to accompany the Landsat Image Mosaic of Antarctica, or LIMA.

The Antarctic Peninsula is probably Antarctica’s most prominent geographical feature and home to scientific stations operated by the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Australia, and other nations. This curved extension of the continent extends nearly 250 miles north of the Antarctic Circle and points toward the southern tip of South America. The Antarctic Peninsula has a number of glaciers and floating ice shelves that are changing rapidly because this region is warming faster than the rest of the continent.

Running along the length of the peninsula, and extending across the continent is a mountain chain known as the Transantarctic Mountains. In addition to supplying spectacular views, the Transantarctics serve as a sort of dividing line separating East and West Antarctica.

A view of the Transantarctic Mountains  during IceBridge's 2013 Antarctic campaign.

A view of the Transantarctic Mountains during IceBridge’s 2013 Antarctic campaign.

Although the Antarctic Ice Sheet is a continuous mass of ice, it is sometimes helpful to think of it as two separate masses. The West Antarctic and East Antarctic ice sheets are separated by the Transantarctics, with ice on the west side generally flowing toward the Western Hemisphere and ice on the east side flowing toward the eastern hemisphere. (In both cases, this is actually flowing north…away from the South Pole.)

East Antarctica is considerably larger than West Antarctica, and its ice sheet is thick – nearly three miles (five kilometers) in some regions . The ice surface of East Antarctica is high and home to some of the coldest and driest condition on Earth.

The East Antarctic Ice Sheet is considered to be more stable than the West Antarctic. One reason is the shape and elevation of bedrock beneath the ice. Heavy masses of ice push down on bedrock, depressing some areas below mean sea level. If those low-lying areas happen to be near the edge of the ice sheet — which is the case in much of West Antarctica — then ocean water can make its way under the ice, speeding up glacier flow.

This is one of the reasons that, while both portions of the ice sheet are losing mass, West Antarctica is moving much faster. Recent studies of West Antarctica found that many of its fast-moving glaciers are in an irreversible decline.

sea ice shadow

Shadow of the NASA DC-8 on sea ice in the Weddell Sea. Credit: NASA / Jim Yungel

Antarctica is surrounded on all sides by the Southern Ocean. During the winter, ocean water freezes, forming a layer of sea ice of roughly the same area as the Antarctic continent. In recent years, sea ice around the continent has been increasing.

The ocean around Antarctica is divided into several seas. Starting to the right of the Antarctic Peninsula on the map is the Weddell Sea, which extends to Cape Norvegia, a small point of land jutting off of East Antarctica. Moving clockwise we go around the East Antarctic coast all the way to the Ross Sea, south of New Zealand. Next comes the Amundsen Sea, where large West Antarctic glaciers like Pine Island and Thwaites drain. We complete our trip around Antarctica by coming to the Bellingshausen Sea, to the left of the Antarctic Peninsula.

For maps of Antarctica, including some that use imagery from the Landsat satellite, visit:

To use an interactive Antarctic atlas, visit:

Notes from the Field