March 30, 2023

NASA monitors US air pollution in real time

For years, satellites have been used to measure air pollution from space, but now, for the first time, a NASA space pollution sensor can provide data on the distribution of air pollutants in the United States without interruption and in real time. .

  • The Tempo sensor will be deployed to capture pollutant distribution data over the US
  • Unlike other existing sensors, TEMPO captures data without pauses and in real time
  • TEMPO will launch on April 7, 2023 aboard one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets.
  • It will be mounted on the Intelsat 40e telecommunication satellite operated by US company Intelsat.

The new sensor, called Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution, or TEMPO, is the first of its kind to measure concentrations of hazardous air pollutants from geostationary orbit 36,000 kilometers above Earth. Earth.

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From this point of view, the TEMPO sensor can detect hourly changes in nitrogen oxide, ozone and formaldehyde concentrations, giving scientists the first opportunity to monitor not only how air pollution levels vary during the day, but also the air itself. Pollutants flow as a result of atmospheric processes.

All previous space air pollution sensors have been mounted on satellites in low Earth orbit, orbiting our planet at an altitude of 1,000 km or less. But even though these satellites complete 15 orbits around the Earth a day, they can only see the same area once a day, which is not enough to understand how air pollution concentrations change in a single day.

These orbits pass over a specific location on Earth, usually at the same time of day. So every day, at 1:30 p.m. you can get the readings of New York City. But that’s just one data point about New York in one day, and there’s a lot going on in New York City in one day. There are two rush hours that we cannot catch. And the great thing about TEMPO is that, for the first time, we can take hourly measurements in North America. That way, you can see what’s going on all day long, until the sun comes up.

Carolyn Nowlan, an atmospheric physicist at the Center for Astrophysics at Harvard & Smithsonian and member of the Tempo science team, at a NASA press conference on Tuesday, March 14.

TEMPO is scheduled to launch on April 7, 2023 on one of SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rockets and will be loaded onto the Intelsat 40e telecommunications satellite operated by US company Intelsat. So far, TEMPO has been funded for 20 months, but scientists expect the instrument to operate for the entire 15-year life of its host spacecraft.

How NASA’s Sensor Works

The TEMPO air pollution sensor can take constant measurements of air pollution concentrations above North America. Image: NASA/SAO

TEMPO is a NASA spectrometer that scans Earth’s atmosphere above the United States, from the East Coast to the West Coast, and measures how chemicals in the air absorb visible and ultraviolet light. From these measurements, scientists can determine how much nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde, and ozone are dispersed in the air.

Nitrogen dioxide is a byproduct of combustion. So, when we burn gasoline or diesel oil to move us, or in power plants that burn coal or natural gas, the byproduct of this process is nitrogen dioxide, which is harmful to human health. It is a primary pollutant and reacts in the atmosphere to produce ozone and formaldehyde, secondary pollutants that are also harmful to human health.

Barry Leffer, NASA tropospheric mixing program manager, during a NASA press conference on Tuesday, March 14.

Even at 36,000 kilometers above Earth, TEMPO can detect concentrations of these pollutants with the same resolution as the best sensors on low-Earth orbit satellites. This will allow researchers to see how air pollution concentrations vary from neighborhood to neighborhood on a given day, how long pollutants last in the air, and how they spread across large urban centers.

TEMPO was developed jointly by NASA and researchers at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

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