Technological innovations from space exploration will help agriculture create a better understanding of global water supplies and irrigation efficiency while helping producers determine threats to plant health sooner.
Charles Elachi, director, Jet Propulsion Laboratory  (JPL), Pasadena, Calif., says current and future satellites in orbit around the Earth, plus rovers and other equipment examining other planets, will provide tools to help water organizations better predict and utilize water supplies and help farmers more efficiently manage water use on the farm.
JPL is a federally-funded research- and development-facility managed by the California Institute of Technology  (CIT) for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration  (NASA). Elachi serves as CIT’s vice-president.
“Technology developed by NASA could help monitor water tables worldwide within one-quarter of an inch, including water discharge (snow melt) from the Sierra Nevada and Rocky mountains into major rivers,” Elachi says.
Elachi discussed space exploration technology and its future benefits for agriculture during the 2012 Western Growers annual meeting held in Scottsdale, Ariz., in November.
“In a few years, we’ll be able to learn how much snow is in the Sierra Nevada on a weekly basis, how much dust is discharged in different drainage areas, and how much water exists in the water table in the Central Valley,” Elachi said.
JPL is developing a satellite which can monitor current water levels in reservoirs and lakes worldwide within a fraction of an inch.
“I envision these capabilities from the technology we’re developing for space exploration would be available for use in agriculture in the next five to 10 years,” Elachi predicted.
JPL has 24 spacecraft and 10 instruments which conduct active missions to explore the Earth, the solar system, and the universe.
In fact, satellites now allow experts to examine water levees for structural risks.
Elachi is one of the preeminent rocket scientists in the world. He has led an international team of scientists to develop roadmaps for the exploration of our solar system and neighboring systems.
The JPL leader is the author of more than 230 publications.
When the space program develops technology, Elachi says private enterprise can fine-tune advancements for specific businesses including agriculture.
“We developed an instrument to analyze soil and the rock,” Elachi explained. “I envision the instrument could become affordable. Entrepreneurs could apply the technology, for example, to (farm) fields to determine the carbon level and soil composition.”
Imaging spectrometers which currently help fly spacecraft could help producers identify plant health issues earlier. For example, the technology could help the U.S. citrus industry against its greatest threat — the bacteria-caused Huanglongbing disease in citrus trees.
Every HLB-infected tree eventually dies from the disease or a related problem.
Currently, a citrus producer cannot see HLB symptoms in a tree until several years after the initial infection. Technology aboard satellites and airplanes could detect emissions from HLB-infected citrus leaves through early patterns and color changes in leaves, currently invisible to the human eye.
“The accuracy rate on this technology is about 90 percent,” Elachi said. “This could be very helpful to many producers in agriculture.”
Curiosity and Mars success
Elachi spent much of his keynote address discussing NASA’s latest success story — the heart-pounding, pitch-perfect Aug. 5 landing of the rover Curiosity on the planet Mars in the Gale Crater.
Elachi described the landing as “seven minutes of terror.” The rover capsule entered the Mars atmosphere travelling at 27,000 miles an hour. Elachi characterized the difficult landing to the equivalence of landing the rover in Seat 10F at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena while the seat moved at a high rate of speed.
The successful landing was watched live by 50 million Americans. The JPL website received 1.8 billion hits within 24-hours of the landing.
Curiosity mission costs are pegged at about $7 per American citizen. The rover is 100 percent ‘Made in the USA,’ Elachi boasted.
“For thousands of years people have looked to the sky and asked about Mars — the little red planet,” Elachi said. “Now we can say our generation put a rover on Mars. This will shape a lot of young people’s inspiration that anything is possible.”
The purpose of the two-year Curiosity mission is to find out if Mars has ever hosted life. Geologically, Mars is very similar to Earth with soil and rock chemistry very similar to the Earth.
Mars is about one-third the size of Earth and had polar ice caps. Like the Earth, Mars has a type of "grand canyon" which is about 10 times wider than the Grand Canyon in Arizona. The Mars’ canyon would stretch from the U.S. West to East coasts.
Elachi posed this question - why is Mars so dry today when the Earth has abundant life and ocean water? Evidence on Mars’ surface suggests a history of oceans. The next question was could life have started on Mars and ended?
Elachi said, “The answer in part will be found in the rocks on Mars examined by Curiosity.”
About 13 billion years ago, a Big Bang occurred where particles formed galaxies. Today, billions of galaxies are located across the universe.
Scientists do not fully understand why the Big Bang occurred and remain unsure whether life is common, uncommon, or different across the universe.
Stars continually are born and then die, Elachi says. Eventually our solar system including the sun, its eight planets, and moons will cease to exist.
“Our sun will eventually blow up but I wouldn’t lose any sleep over it. This will occur in about 3 billion years,” Elachi laughed.
As part of the Curiosity mission, the rover will climb up a mountain consisting of sedimentary rock, most likely deposited in an alluvial environment. Elachi says the rocks are very similar to those found in California’s Central Valley.