NASA’s new space ‘botanist’ arrives at launch site

A new instrument that will provide a unique, space-based measurement of how plants respond to changes in water availability has arrived at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to begin final preparations for launch to the International Space Station this summer aboard a cargo resupply mission.

NASA’s ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS) left NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, on April 6 by ground transport and arrived at Kennedy Space Center on April 9.

A few days after it reaches the space station, ECOSTRESS will be robotically installed on the exterior of the station’s Japanese Experiment Module Exposed Facility Unit.

ECOSTRESS will give us new insights into plant health by quantifying the temperature of plants from space as never before, measuring regions as small as 230 feet (70 meters) on a side, or about the size of a small farm. It will do this by estimating how much water plants are releasing to cool themselves (i.e., evapotranspiration—the equivalent of sweating in humans). This will tell us how much water different plants use and need, and how they react to environmental stresses caused by water shortages. ECOSTRESS will estimate how much water moves through and out of plants by tracking how the temperatures of plants change. The data from its minimum one-year mission will be used by ecologists, hydrologists, agriculturalists, meteorologists and other scientists.