12 Nov 2018

Science body teams up with NASA for ecology mission

6:24 pm on 12 November 2018

New Zealand's Centre for Space Science Technology (CSST) has partnered with NASA to measure the temperature of plants, to find out how they respond to stress.

NASA has delivered its ECOSTRESS instrument, which is roughly the size of a refrigerator, to the International Space Station, as part of a one-year mission.

It captures temperature measurements of the Earth's surface and sends the data back down to Earth.

CSST's principal scientist Dr Dave Kelbe said like humans, when a plant's temperature deviated from the norm, it meant something was wrong.

"When plants get too hot, they close their pores and stop sweating and they also stop taking in carbon dioxide, so they stop growing."

No caption

The Ecostress instrument installed on the International Space Station. Photo: Supplied / NASA

Dr Kelbe said like humans, when a plant's temperature deviates from the norm, it means something is wrong.

"When someone in your care is sick, one of the first things you'll do is take their temperature. Our bodies have this natural thermostat and when our temperature deviates from that norm, we know something is wrong. And in the same way plants also regulate their temperature to stay healthy.

"You can think of this as a giant thermometer for New Zealand."

Researchers from University of Waikato, Manaaki Whenua-Landcare Research, and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA), will contribute to the project's New Zealand-based research.

Each of the New Zealand partners manage ecological research sites throughout the country and will be contributing their own data to the project.

Dr Kelbe said New Zealand researchers played a key role in advancing the scientific understanding to how plants used water.

"By supporting this project with collaboration, the quality and precision of the data over New Zealand is elevated, if it's linked with what we're seeing on the ground, then we know we can trust the data with high confidence to make decisions."

The ecostress instrument captures images such as the one below of Mount Taranaki, which shows the temperature of the land surface.

The Egmont National Park (circular area) is cooler than the surrounding pastoral land, while urban areas are significantly warmer. This information, analogous to having millions of thermometers in the ground, can be used to indicate vegetation stress and drought, ultimately helping farmers make better decisions with limited resources, the Centre for Space Science Technology said.

No caption

The ecostress instrument on board the ISS captures images such as the one above of Mount Taranaki. Photo: Supplied / CSST/NASA

Dr Kelbe said the data could be used for designing smart irrigation technology and getting better estimates of carbon uptake, to help meet our net zero greenhouse gas emissions' targets.

He said it would not only help farmers with productivity but our environment as well.