NASA Langley to help monitor the daily evolution of pollution
Nov 23, 2012 (Daily Press (Newport News - McClatchy-Tribune Information Services via COMTEX) --
It's routine to turn to a television station or link to a website to watch the weather evolve for hours in real time.
In a few years, with the help of scientists at NASA Langley Research Center in Hampton, you may be able to tune in and watch the evolution of key air pollutants throughout the day over North America and, perhaps, the world.
"This is not measuring clouds, but measuring chemistry," said atmospheric scientist David Flittner, who is part of a team chosen to help put a pollution sensor into geostationary orbit 22,000 miles above the United States.
Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution -- or TEMPO -- will provide accurate hourly observations for the first time of ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, formaldehyde and aerosols. The troposphere is the lowest layer of Earth's atmosphere, reaching from ground level to about 65,000 feet above sea level.
Technology now in place provides more limited data on air quality, offering measurements just once a day from satellite-based sensors moving in sun-sync orbit around the planet, said Flittner. Such measurements are usually taken around noon over a specific region.
"But the air quality changes throughout the course of the day," Flittner said. "From the beginning of the morning to the late afternoon, it can change dramatically."
Motorists on morning and evening commutes or power plants revving up to meet power demands, for instance, can greatly alter the chemistry of the troposphere, he said. TEMPO, locked in orbit overhead, will be able to capture those changes in real time.
"With this, we can get a movie, if you will, evolving throughout the day," said Flittner, "instead of a single snapshot."
One day, there might even be an app for that.
Flittner said TEMPO's principal investigator, Kelly Chance at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., would like to make such products available through smartphone apps.
According to NASA Langley spokeswoman Kathy Barnstorff, the European Space Agency and South Korea are working on similar geostationary systems to monitor air quality over their regions, as well.
"TEMPO is part of a global effort," Barnstorff said.
It's well-documented that air pollutants can be transported from one region or continent to the next, said Flittner, "so to really understand air quality, we need a constellation of observations."
Once in place, TEMPO will not only show us the chemical side of things, said Flittner, but also "the real sources of pollution that we need to be concerned about. So it's in some sense providing more information for policymakers to make intelligent decisions."
Research costs are capped at $90 million, and the target date for completion is September 2017. Once ready, TEMPO will be launched with a host commercial communication satellite to observe the atmosphere in ultraviolet and visible wavelengths for concentrations of major pollutants.
NASA Langley's proposal was selected from among 14 submitted to NASA's Earth Venture Instrument program, which fosters missions for Earth science research.
TEMPO was presented as a two-year mission, Flittner said, but instruments are typically designed to last much longer than that.
"The hope and the expectation is that, at the end of our proposed investigation period, if things are functioning well and the science being returned is great," said Flittner, "that the mission could be renewed and continue on."
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