Researchers at Iowa’s two largest universities have landed a grant from NASA to study the movement of water — how it collects in the soil and evaporates into the air.

Brian Hornbuckle, an agronomy professor at Iowa State University, says the focus is on what’s called "remote sensing," the method used to measure how water moves in the environment, from the atmosphere to the ground and back into the atmosphere. Hornbuckle says the problem is that while remote sensing produces a lot of pretty pictures, they’re still not sure how accurate or useful it is, so the project aims to determine the accuracy of remote sensing measurements and how well they’ll help scientists to understand the movement of water in the environment.

One crucial element for Iowa farmers is soil moisture and Hornbuckle says they’re zeroing in on watching how water gets into the ground — and how it leaves. According to Hornbuckle, one of the biggest weaknesses in the weather models is that they can’t take into account the storage of moisture in the soil and how it’s released back into the atmosphere, so they want to develop remote sensing methods that can measure the water stored in soil and how it returns to the atmosphere.

Working with researchers from the University of Iowa, Hornbuckle’s team will be building a prototype remote sensing observatory for their research just south of the ISU campus in Ames. He says the observatory will be a sort of "playground for remote sensing scientists." The instruments will be buried in the ground at several spots over a 200-acre field so the remote readings can be compared with actual measurements in the soil.

The project is being funded by a five-year, $1.3 million dollar grant. The goal is to help scientists better predict global water and energy cycles.