Not that long ago it was widely assumed that if we’re not talking about Earth, then we’re not talking about water. Earth is awash in water. The stuff covers over 70% of its surface. Most of this is salty ocean water. A much smaller percentage is fresh water, the kind we use to cook and clean, shower, and stay hydrated. Go off planet elsewhere in the solar system and you’re not likely to find a lot of water, at least not in the abundance you find on Earth (apart from a place like Jupiter’s moon Europa with its subsurface ocean).
How valuable and important is the H2O molecule?
That’s a rhetorical question. But consider upcoming lunar exploration and the Artemis missions. Compared to the moon, Earth is sopping wet, but researchers recently confirmed the presence of water there. Mission planners are focused on the lunar south pole and areas in permanent shadow because that means the possibility of converting water ice into fuel for transport and exploration, oxygen to breathe, and drinking water for astronauts. The presence of water on the moon may be essential to establishing a permanent and sustainable human presence there.
Similarly, water is essential to maintaining our human presence on Earth. Civilization depends on it. We need water to survive—no bombshell there—and as an essential ingredient for organic life as we know it, water makes up more than half of our bodies. Without enough water we’d die of thirst and dehydration in just a few days.
But things get even more serious when we talk about water and climate change.
We’re not saying that Earth is about to become the desert planet Arrakis in Frank Herbert’s Dune. At one point in Arrakis’s deep (fictional) history, the planet had lakes and oceans. Mars once had plenty of water and perhaps even oceans, too, before it turned into the dry Red Planet it is today. Before that happened, scientists say that catastrophic floods shaped the topography of Mars and are thought to have carved the planet’s network of valleys. In short, planets change, and knowing what we know about water, it’s clear that managing water resources effectively is crucial.
So, how can we improve water management in this new era of satellite technology?
Traditional water resource monitoring—in-situ monitoring with fixed assets like ground-based, Earth-bound sensors—can be hampered by physical constraints. These sensors typically stay in one place. They don’t go anywhere. They’re limited in the amount and quality of data they can gather compared to micro-satellites on low Earth orbit overhead. Micro-satellites deliver robust data streams updated in near real-time. Used in conjunction with ground-based sensors, the combination of in-situ and remote satellite monitoring offers a powerful tool for hydrologic decision-making.
The American Geophysical Union suggests that rapid development in satellite technology, such as smaller sizes (which make micro-satellites cheaper to launch) coupled with the exponential increase in computing power, will allow us to “describe almost every facet of the water cycle,” including measurements like precipitation, evaporation, soil moisture, and groundwater, among others.
And for people like water managers working for municipalities, for example, who are tasked with preventing and addressing things like water intrusion events, the data generated from remote satellite monitoring is invaluable, both now and in the decades to come.