Following on the heels of several NASA related stories we’ve had on the site, this post also involves the space agency. NASA is at a turning point with the retiring of the space shuttle, and there is some pondering about what direction the organization should pursue. One mission, called DISCOVER-AQ keeps its flights a little closer to the ground. Research planes were flown between Washington, D.C. and Baltimore for much of July to gather data on pollutants such as particulates and ozone. As described by NASA,
“We’re trying fill the knowledge gap that severely limits our ability to monitor air pollution with satellites,” said James Crawford, the campaign’s principal investigator and a scientist based at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va.
The fundamental challenge for satellites measuring air quality is to distinguish between pollution near the surface and pollution higher in the atmosphere. Measurements from aircraft, in combination with ground-based measurements, offer a key perspective that makes such distinctions easier to make.
Though air pollution has lessened over the last several decades, there are still more than 125 million Americans that live in places that often don’t meet air pollution standards. The DC-Baltimore corridor was picked because it is fairly polluted, with I-95, trains, ports, big cities, and several airports’ flight paths. Pollution decreases and the air generally gets cleaner the higher up in the atmosphere you go. With the heat and humidity the east coast faced for much of July, the plane the researchers were flying in had to climb to 8,500 ft before they could see really clear blue sky.
Putting NASA resources to use in this way, especially in times of uncertainty like these, presents a more down to earth (pun intended) approach to research and applicability. Personally, I’m one who is impressed and inspired by the space program and its boundary pushing explorations. It’s also good, however, to see technology and resources being used to make life better here on earth.