ESA successfully tests FLEX instrument, designed to create maps of photosynthetic activity

FLEX aims to detect abnormal peaks of florescence from space, providing warnings of stress in plants (Image: University of Milano-Bicocca)

The European Space Agency (ESA) has successfully tested its Fluorescence Explorer mission (FLEX), which is vying for a spot on the organisation’s eight Earth Explorer satellite. The mission, which aims to create global maps of photosynthetic activity, will allow for the identification of vegetation suffering degrees of stress that simply aren’t visible to the human eye. It has the potential to significantly further our understanding of the global carbon cycle, and could have an impact on agricultural management.

Building a greater understanding of global crops is becoming increasingly important, with a joint study between MIT, the University of Hong Kong and Colorado State University predicting last year that a combination of air pollution and global warming could lead to a 10 percent drop in rice, wheat, corn and soy yields by 2050.

Satellites such as the recently deployed Soil Moisture Active Passive (SMAP) – which is itself designed to predict droughts – are already tackling the problem, but the FLEX mission has the potential to significantly increase understanding and streamline agricultural efforts.

In order to assess the effectiveness of the proposed mission, the ESA team used a HyPlant instrument – an airborne imaging spectrometer – attached to an aircraft to measure the florescence of two fields of turf, one of which had been treated with common herbicide. The measurements were taken several hours after the herbicide had been applied.

When a plant is put under environmental or health-related stress, its ability to put collected solar energy to use is lessened. To get rid of the excess energy, a higher level of radiation is emitted, leading to a stronger glow. The readings collected by the HyPlant instrument found that, as hoped, the treated field emitted significantly higher levels of florescence than the untreated field, meaning that it can be used as an effective early warning of stress in plants.

The tests were carried out over a period of two years between 2012 and 2014 at the CzechGlobe facilities in the Czech Republic, and later in Italy. They mark the first time that such an experiment has been performed outside of a controlled laboratory setting.

Team member Micol Rossini, who works at the University of Milan, commented on the significance of putting such a system on an Earth Explorer satellite, stating, “Getting information from space to generate detailed and global maps of plant health and vegetation stress under changing environmental conditions would be a quantum leap in science.”

The FLEX mission is currently competing with CarbonSat – a project that aims to study methane and carbon dioxide in Earth’s atmosphere. The decision on which mission will receive a spot on the satellite will be made towards the end of 2015.

Source: ESA

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