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Space-Age Water Expert Joins NMSU

LAS CRUCES - If understanding New Mexico's water issues is akin to rocket science, physicist Thomas Schmugge has the right stuff for his new role at New Mexico State University.

New Mexico State University President Michael Martin, left, spoke with Thomas Schmugge, new water expert, following university convocation Tuesday (Jan. 11). Schmugge, a physicist who has worked for NASA and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's hydrology lab, will take a space-based look at New Mexico's water supply and water use. He is the new occupant of NMSU's Gerald Thomas Chair in Food Production and Natural Resources. (NMSU Agricultural Communications photo by Darren Phillips)

Schmugge will take a space-based look at the state's water supply and water usage as the new occupant of NMSU's Gerald Thomas Chair in Food Production and Natural Resources. He was recognized Tuesday during campus convocation.

Schmugge (rhymes with buggy) spent 15 years with NASA and 17 years with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Hydrology and Remote Sensing Laboratory. He uses satellite data, such as microwave and thermal infrared images, to estimate snowmelt, measure soil moisture and determine water losses in plants.

Filling the chair with a water research expert is "incredibly appropriate," because water is one of the university's top priorities, said NMSU President Michael Martin.

"NMSU has significant expertise in water, and we're adding to it," he said. "Focusing on water allows us to serve the people of New Mexico, generate external funding and put New Mexico State on the national and international stage for expertise in water and arid climate research."

Schmugge's experience as a physicist with NASA shows his ability to take a multidisciplinary approach needed for complex issues such as water, Martin said.

Schmugge, who will begin work in March, has collaborated for a decade with scientists from the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Jornada Experimental Range, who are adjunct faculty at NMSU.

Schmugge's expertise can help NMSU and the state with long-term planning and solutions to water needs, said Al Rango, a Jornada scientist who worked with Schmugge in the 1970s at NASA.

"We don't want our water to be lost without beneficial use," Rango said. "This data can help find where leaks are occurring, minimize evaporation and losses to undesirable vegetation, and improve irrigation scheduling."

Schmugge uses satellite measurements of surface temperatures to model evaporation in desert areas and heating of the atmosphere.

He collects data from a satellite named Terra, launched in a low-earth orbit in 1999 for NASA's Earth Observation Systems program. "In New Mexico, the orbit is timed for about 11 a.m. Mountain Standard Time," Schmugge said. "We gather surface temperature and thermal emission data."

During his time at NMSU, Schmugge could help establish long-term water research capabilities using remote sensing, said Gerald Thomas, former NMSU president and the chair's namesake.

"I'm pleased that the focus for the chair is on water," Thomas said. "Bringing more science into the program should give us a more coherent picture."