Microwave remote sensing of soil moisture has been an active area of research since the 1970s but has yet found little use in operational applications. Given recent advances in retrieval algorithms and the approval of a dedicated soil moisture satellite, it is time to re-assess the potential of various satellite systems to provide soil moisture information for hydrologic applications in an operational fashion. This paper reviews recent progress made with retrieving surface soil moisture from three types of microwave sensors – radiometers, Synthetic Aperture Radars (SARs), and scatterometers. The discussion focuses on the operational readiness of the different techniques, considering requirements that are typical for hydrological applications. It is concluded that operational coarse-resolution (25–50 km) soil moisture products can be expected within the next few years from radiometer and scatterometer systems, while scientific and technological breakthroughs are still needed for operational soil moisture retrieval at finer scales (<1 km) from SAR. Also, further research on data assimilation methods is needed to make best use of the coarse-resolution surface soil moisture data provided by radiometer and scatterometer systems in a hydrologic context and to fully assess the value of these data for hydrological predictions.

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