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United States Department of Agriculture

Agricultural Research Service

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How Low Can They Go? Remote Sensing

Imagine flying an airplane very close to the ground, following every hill in a beautiful rolling green landscape. You fly up and down the hills.  You’re so low you can see people’s startled faces!  

That’s what Michael René Davis does.  He’s a skilled Cessna 404 pilot who works for the Agricultural Research Service (ARS) in Weslaco, Texas.

He flies the plane for ARS researchers such as Mark Chopping, a remote-sensing scientist. Would taking a sometimes-bumpy ride in an airplane flying low over the land be your idea of adventure?  If so, you might consider becoming a pilot for remote-sensing scientists—or going along for the ride, as one of the scientists.

Scientists like Chopping get to fly in all kinds of airplanes and communicate with space stations and satellites. Their job is to get a sense of the health of plants and of the Earth itself. They need to get far enough away to get a bigger view of the Earth than is possible from the ground.  

They test satellite sensors on airplanes. These sensors can be cameras peeking through the belly of a plane, or they can be fast-spinning satellite dishes that pick up microwave rays that naturally rise up from Earth’s soil.

Every year, remote-sensing scientists stage a big experiment, usually somewhere in the United States. These experiments can involve an international fleet with many planes and satellites, and even a space station.

The planes that are used can be anything from Cessnas to home-built experimental gliders and military planes. The planes fly so high in the sky that you’d need a top security clearance just to know how high they go.  Many remote-sensing specialists need a top security clearance because they have access to information the satellites collect.

Chopping, Tom Jackson, and other scientists set up their own laboratories on some of these planes. They have computer stations where two or more scientists watch microwaves that enter the plane’s sensor. Jackson hopes to create a folded-up, 36-foot-diameter satellite dish that will unfurl like an umbrella from NASA’s Hydros satellite when it goes up into space in 2010.  The large dish would be much more accurate than today’s 6-foot-diameter dish.

The scientists can tell how much moisture is in the soil by the strength of the microwaves. They will use this information someday to make longterm weather forecasts more accurate.

—By Don Comis, Agricultural Research Service, Information Staff

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Last Modified: 8/12/2016
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