NASA Data and Agriculture: The Connection That Might Surprise You

by Brynna Sentel
5 minute read

For 50 years, satellite data has been used to advance agriculture. This trend shows no signs of stopping, with new uses and technologies in the works. Learn more about this surprising connection!

Nearly every aspect of agriculture ties back to satellite data, a trend that shows no signs of stopping.

Space may be the final frontier, but for years, NASA has been leveraging technology to give farmers a leg up on getting more from their earth. It’s true, and a bit of a well-kept secret, that there’s a 50-year history of using satellite data for ag purposes. The idea that satellites are directly affecting things like the World Agricultural Supply and Demand Estimates (WASDE), pricing, markets, and food aid seems at best a remote thought looking up from the soybean fields of Illinois, but their impact grows every year.

“It started with global assessments of the food supply, and with the next generation you’re seeing better crop production across the globe due to better data,” says Bradley Doorn, Ph.D., Water Resources Application Area & Agriculture Application Area for NASA. “What’s interesting is that often, farmers don’t know it.”

That’s because typically, NASA data is integrated with other organizations, such as the U.S. Drought Monitor produced jointly by the National Drought Mitigation Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the USDA. In fact, much of the data funnels through the USDA, so farmers wouldn’t necessarily know where it originates.

Crop-CASMA, for example, combines NASA data with USDA-NASS and George Mason University delivery systems. This web-based geospatial application lets farmers and other stakeholders see soil moisture and vegetation data to assess U.S. crop vegetation conditions and soil moisture conditions.

NASA Data Generates & Measures Groundwater

For groundwater specifically, NASA data fuels GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment), which generates groundwater and soil moisture indicators weekly. To give you an idea of just how granular satellite data can be, this technology detects small changes in the Earth’s gravity field caused by the redistribution of water on and beneath the land surface.

Paired satellites travel about 137 miles apart at an altitude of 300 miles and record small changes in the distance separating them as they encounter variations in the Earth’s gravitational field. The result is maps of shallow groundwater, root zone soil moisture and surface soil moisture. And the data doesn’t stop with water.

Here is an example of a recent groundwater drought indicator map:

Global Crop Monitoring Using NASA Data

NASA data also contributes to crop monitoring globally, in an effort to provide earlier warnings on production shortfalls. One such platform is the NASA Harvest Portal, which was created during the COVID-19 lockdown, when food supply concerns became paramount. Similarly, the NASA Harvest Crop Monitor  provides monthly reports on global commodities and food security, with a focus on timely, science-driven data on crop conditions worldwide and by crop. Users are able to subscribe to the reports or visit the site for data as they choose.

While NASA data has long been feeding food production monitoring efforts, water use is a new and emerging field for satellite data leverage. “It’s mostly relevant to irrigation currently,” Doorn explains. “We’re able to provide better and more consistent soil moisture data.”

Water really may be the next frontier for satellite data, he believes. “The emerging idea farmers may want to pay attention to is that traditionally the NASA data is huge [and complex], and while it is free, it has not been easy to access,” Doorn says.

Understanding NASA Satellite Data with Technological Advancements

Today, NASA is working with partners to make the data both more available and easier to understand. One example is an Open ET Platform, which NASA is working on with Google and other partners to provide evapotranspiration (ET) information for irrigators, billed as “filling the biggest data gap in water management.” Simply put, the platform uses advance science to provide easily accessible satellite-based estimates of ET.

“Soon, satellite data will all be in the cloud, and industry and farmer groups will be able to develop it,” he says. “These technological advances will really open and allow a more diverse group of users to access it. We’re trying to bring the data to them and to more stakeholders.” As these technologies progress, Doorn says we will see an emergence in the coming years of more ability to work with the data at the industry level.

“We’re calling next year ‘The Year of Open Science’, which means having more people access the data,” he explains. “We’re going to start to see real new value in all of these areas in the coming years. Technology is moving so fast that the question becomes, ‘How do we use it, and how do we adjust to it?’”

It’s also important to recognize that the commercial industry and NASA are not mutually exclusive. “It used to be that we were the only guys on the block,” says Doorn. “Now, it’s international, and we work with industry evaluating these commercial products.” That commercial side is just exploding, he says, and farmers are going to see more and more customized applications out of the commercial sector.

NASA Harvest, for example, aims to facilitate delivering those benefits to ag and food. The group, which includes experts from universities, research centers, industry, space agencies, humanitarian organizations, ministries of agriculture, and more, has a mission to enable and advance adoption of satellite Earth observations.

In the end, maybe home is the final frontier.

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