Mutant soybeans planted as part of a campaign to support the development of ESA’s FLEX mission can be seen clearly as the bright blue strip in the centre of the image. The image was captured by the airborne HyPlant, which comprises two ‘imaging spectrometers’ – essentially cameras that see the reflected and the emitted light from the surface at different wavelengths. The mutant soybean plants only have 20% of the chlorophyll of ‘normal’ green plants. Such chlorophyll deficiency changes the properties of the leaves, which are a yellowy colour. As such, these mutant soybean leaves reflect much more sunlight than their green cousins, leaving the plant with less energy to photosynthesise. Although they have less energy, these mutants are surprisingly more efficient at fixing carbon dioxide from the air. Traditional satellite techniques rely on measuring aspects of reflected light to estimate plant productivity and cannot account for unusual coloured plants. ESA’s FLEX mission, however, will use a novel technique to map plant health. It will detect and measure the faint glow that plants give off as they photosynthesise, so non-green plants will be measured like normal green plants.
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