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NASA and CSST partner to improve science and applications outcomes for New Zealand

By November 12, 2018March 20th, 2019No Comments

CSST is delighted to announce their role in facilitating their first international space mission partnership, as a calibration and validation (cal/val) partner for the NASA ECOSTRESS mission.

ECOSTRESS is a scientific mission that will measure the temperature of plants and use that information to better understand how much water plants need and how they respond to stress. The ECOSTRESS instrument, which is roughly the size of a refrigerator, is installed on the International Space Station. It captures temperature measurements of the Earth’s surface and sends the data back down to Earth.

The New Zealand cal/val partnership brings together researchers from University of Waikato, Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research, and the National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research (NIWA) to provide ECOSTRESS with essential ground measurements from New Zealand.

The partnership was formed when CSST reached out to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) after identifying a unique opportunity for New Zealand researchers to contribute to ECOSTRESS. CSST liaised with JPL to understand the project requirements and has facilitated the collaboration of researchers from the three local partner organisations.

Each of the New Zealand partner organisations manage ecological research sites throughout our country, where tower-mounted sensors measure the exchanges of carbon dioxide, water vapour, methane, and other gases – exactly what is needed to calibrate and validate space-based measurements from ECOSTRESS.

Work is now underway at JPL to calibrate and validate the preliminary ECOSTRESS science data by comparing the spaceborne measurements with similar measurements made at ground control sites around the world. This quality control process is a critical component of all space-based missions and ensures that remote observations can be reliably tied to what is actually happening at the ground-level.

“The CSST and New Zealand researchers have established an important network of ecosystem measurements across a diverse landscape. This is important not only for understanding New Zealand’s rich ecology, but also for helping NASA to calibrate and validate similar measurements from space by ECOSTRESS,” said JPL scientist and ECOSTRESS science lead, Dr Joshua Fisher.

By contributing to this mission, New Zealand researchers are playing a key role in both advancing scientific understanding of how plants use water; and enabling water managers, farmers, and policy-makers to utilise that data for better decision-making. Ultimately, this information could be used to protect the world’s vulnerable ecosystems while increasing agricultural yield and optimising forestry management.

“We are excited to be working with the New Zealand team and look forward to doing more work with them in the future,” said JPL scientist and ECOSTRESS calibration/validation lead, Dr Kerry Cawse-Nicholson.

“We hope that this is the beginning of many science partnerships with key international space actors,” said Steve Cotter, CEO of CSST.

“It’s an exciting opportunity for us at CSST, but even more so for the whole of New Zealand, who will have free access to the data produced by ECOSTRESS and the opportunity to use that data for their own scientific research or to develop applications based on learnings from the collected data.”

The ECOSTRESS instrument on board the ISS captures images such as the one above of Mount Taranaki, which shows the temperature of the land surface. Note how 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. Photo: CSST/NASA


If someone in your care is sick, one of the first things you’ll do is take their temperature. Our bodies have a natural “thermostat”, and when our temperature deviates from this norm, we know something is wrong.

In the same way, plants carefully regulate their internal temperature to stay healthy, and we can measure this temperature from space to monitor their health and mitigate environmental stressors.

As plants open their pores to take in carbon dioxide for photosynthesis (i.e. grow), water is simultaneously released through evapotranspiration. This helps them cool down, much as human sweat cools us down. But if plants don’t have enough water to release, they can overheat. As a survival mechanism—for example during a hot and dry afternoon—they may close their pores to prevent water loss and consequently halt growth.

Thus, plant vitality and yield are inextricably linked to heat stress and water availability. Understanding how vegetation changes due to these stresses is the key science question being addressed by the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS) mission.

The instrument was launched into orbit on 29 June and installed on the International Space Station on 5 July, where it will remain for at least 12 months.

ECOSTRESS science applications in New Zealand

“Applications of ECOSTRESS data for understanding and managing natural resources is something we are excited to see,” said JPL scientist and ECOSTRESS Applications Lead, Dr Christine Lee. “This partnership is the ideal venue to demonstrate the benefit of remote sensing data in a practical way.”

Collectively, the New Zealand network of ground sites spans a diversity of land uses and climate, including wetland peat bog, irrigated and non-irrigated agricultural sites, and dairy pasture. This variety of well-characterised mini-environments makes New Zealand uniquely positioned to contribute to global science missions by providing calibration and validation of space-based measurements across ecological zones.

Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research

Manaaki Whenua – Landcare Research (MWLR) has ongoing projects on the carbon, nitrogen and water exchange of pastures and fodder crops with and without irrigation, as well as projects aimed at optimising irrigation water-use by smart sensing technology.

Andrew McMillan, MWLR Senior Researcher said, “this collaboration with ECOSTRESS and CSST provides a great opportunity to take observations made at the sites of MWLR and the NZ partner organisations, and use them to inform the development of space-borne data products that are global in scale but maintain local relevance”.


New Zealand committed to ambitious reduction in net greenhouse gas emissions, and the current government aims for net zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. Under a new Endeavour science programme “Guiding New Zealand’s Carbon Mitigation Strategies”, NIWA will test the hypothesis that New Zealand’s current reporting methods underestimate land carbon uptake.

NIWA is now extending the monitoring of grassland systems to irrigated and non-irrigated systems.

Mike Harvey, NIWA Principal Scientist – Atmosphere commented, “I’m excited that this might give us an opportunity for a broader participation in ECOSTRESS now and in the future. We will be starting to look at the interaction between water use, irrigation and carbon in this new programme. It will be interesting to look more deeply into the impacts of irrigation and what governs whether there is net carbon loss or gain compared to dryland”.

Dr Christian Zammit, a hydrologist from NIWA said, “the opportunity for our team to partner in this multinational project highlights the depth of local science expertise and resources in New Zealand”.

Zammit is leading a programme of work that will create the New Zealand Water Model, a sophisticated computer model framework that will enable users to accurately predict how much freshwater is available, where it has come from, and how quickly it moves through New Zealand catchments. The time series fluxes provided by ECOSTRESS will be used to help develop and validate this model across New Zealand.

University of Waikato

University of Waikato research programmes that will be contributing datasets to ECOSTRESS span across low-nutrient bog-type wetlands to highly productive dairy-grazed pastures where greenhouse gas exchanges (CO2, methane, nitrous oxide) and water use have been measured for nearly a decade.

Associate Professor David Campbell said, “We are excited to be able to provide high-quality ground-level datasets that can help to validate ECOSTRESS across a wide spectrum of natural and agricultural ecosystems. By partnering in this project we hope to gain a new tool that we can use to understand the effects of disturbances, such as droughts, on plant productivity and greenhouse gas emissions in these diverse ecosystem types”.

About CSST

CSST is a regional research institute based in Alexandra, Central Otago. The organisation was established in May 2017 as part of the Ministry of Business, Innovation and Employment’s Regional Research Institute Initiative.

CSST is an agile company that can handle the entire Earth observation data life-cycle, from system design, data capture, analysis and synthesis, data management, dissemination, through to training and support. More info: www.csst.co.nz

About NASA’s Jet Propulsion Lab (JPL)

The Jet Propulsion Laboratory is a unique national research facility in the U.S. that carries out robotic space and Earth science missions for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). JPL built and manages the ECOSTRESS mission for NASA’s Earth Science Division in the Science Mission Directorate at NASA Headquarters in Washington. ECOSTRESS is an Earth Venture Instrument mission; the program is managed by NASA’s Earth System Science Pathfinder program at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia. Caltech, based in Pasadena, California, manages JPL for NASA.