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A new NASA research spacecraft scheduled for a late January launch will employ a “spinning lasso” to measure moisture in the Earth’s soil—from space.

Dubbed the Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP), the instrument will employ radar, a radiometer and the largest rotating mesh antenna ever deployed in space. The fine mesh antenna dish, which has a diameter of 19.7 feet, transmits microwaves toward Earth that penetrate the soil and then rebound into space.

“We call it the spinning lasso,” Wendy Edelstein of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory said in a statement. The antenna is attached to a mechanical arm on the spacecraft like a cowboy’s rope.

The spacecraft can tell scientists how dramatic droughts will be in large swathes of farmland and help the agriculture industry recover from long dry spells. The SMAP will launch on Jan. 29 and orbit the Earth every three days or less.


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