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Tracking California's Wine Louse

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A 21st Century Satellite Orbiting Earth

NASA used satellites in 1993 to help California wineries battle an aphid-like insect that had bugged the industry for centuries.

About 65 percent of vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties were planted with a grape rootstock vulnerable to a new strain of phylloxera, an insect that kills plants by sucking juice from grapevine roots.

Infrared satellite photos of stressed plants were used to map root louse damage to wine grapes — a serious threat to California's huge wine industry. A century earlier, a strain of phylloxera had nearly destroyed the vineyards of California and France.

The satellites' visible-light and near-infrared cameras saw nutrient deficiencies within plants at an early stage — damage usually not visible until two or three years after the insect has been feeding on the plant. Then, the plant declines rapidly and cannot bring its fruit to maturity for harvesting.

Temperature is an indicator of plant health. Stressed plants are warmer because they cannot efficiently pass water through their membranes.

Thermal scans by observation satellites recorded subtle differences in grapevine temperatures. Grapevine leaves were short on nutrients and preparing to turn yellow.

The photos allowed researchers to see plant damage and map the spread of the insect. Vineyard managers could replant with resistant roots — the only way to rid the vineyards of the pest.

NASA, known to be an agency in love with acronyms, didn't fall short on the phylloxera project, labeling it GRAPES for Grapevine Remote sensing Analysis of Phylloxera Early Stress.

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