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.”