NASA News

Michael Finneran
757-864-6110 (office) 757-344-4611 (cell)
michael.p.finneran@nasa.gov
07.09.10
 
RELEASE : 10-058
 
 
NASA Langley Campaign to Improve Air Quality Monitoring by Satellites
 
 
A team led by a NASA Langley Research Center scientist has been selected to carry out a four-year campaign to improve the use of satellites to monitor air quality for public health and environmental benefit.

The team, led by Langley senior research scientist Jim Crawford, won $30 million in funding from NASA's Earth Venture program, designed to promote high-impact, quick-turnaround research campaigns.

NASA Langley's King Air B200
Click to enlarge

NASA Langley's King Air B200. Credit: NASA/Sean Smith

"Monitoring stations on the ground still provide the primary information about air pollution to decision-makers," Crawford said. "If we can improve our ability to use satellites to measure air quality at the surface, we can gain valuable insight into regions we don't have data for now, and get critical guidance on where to put new ground-based air quality monitors in the future."

The campaign will employ NASA aircraft to make a series of flights, with scientific instruments on board to measure gaseous and particulate pollution, beginning in 2011.

The measurements will be taken in concert with ground observations in order to shed light on how satellites could be used to make similar, consistent measurements over time, with the ultimate goal of putting better data in the hands of policymakers and elected officials.

Even as cities and states have made great strides in improving air quality since the Clean Air Act, an increasing number of localities continue to fall short of federal air quality standards. Cities and regions that do not meet Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) standards risk losing federal money for road construction, as many pollution problems are linked to excessive vehicle exhaust.

Several Virginia municipalities have struggled to meet the EPA standards over the years, and Hampton Roads only recently did so. Failure to meet standards means a region has too many days a year where pollution levels mix with hot, sunny conditions to create harmful health effects.

Standards have gotten stricter as scientists learn more about the harmful effects of pollution, and incremental improvements in air quality now required often are difficult to accomplish.

But many localities have also seen what scientists call "background" pollution – the norm – rise to higher levels. Scientists want to improve their grasp of the evolution of air pollution in order to better understand its environmental and health impacts and to make more accurate air quality forecasts.

One way to do this would be to harness the power of Earth-observing satellites. Right now, observing air pollution at the Earth's surface is one of the most difficult measurements to make from space.

With improved ability to monitor pollution from satellites, scientists could make better air quality forecasts, more accurately determine the sources of pollutants in the air and more closely determine the fluctuations in emissions levels. In short, the more -- and more accurate -- data scientists have at hand, the better society is able to deal effectively with lingering pollution problems.

"The knowledge gained during this campaign will be invaluable in leading to more effective use of current satellite observations, more effective design and observing strategies for future satellites, and improved air quality models," Crawford said.

The series of flights -- which will be made by NASA Langley's King Air B200 and NASA's P-3B -- will be over Baltimore-Washington, D.C. (2011); Houston (2012); Sacramento (2013); and a final site in 2014 to be determined.

Led by Crawford, the campaign will draw on scientists at Langley, Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md.; Ames Research Center, outside San Francisco; and multiple universities. The campaign is called DISCOVER-AQ (Deriving Information on Surface Conditions from Column and Vertically Resolved Observations Relevant to Air Quality).

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