NASA, the European Space Agency, and South Korea are building a "virtual constellation" of space-based instruments together, to record global air pollution at an unprecedented scale, reports the Verge. Soon, scientists will track pollution from space on an hourly basis.
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Air pollution caught every hour
The first instrument launched was the Geostationary Environment Monitoring Spectrometer (GEMS), of South Korea, on Feb. 18. It flew into orbit mounted on a Korean satellite designed to monitor the ocean surface. NASA will send an almost-identical instrument to space on a commercial communications satellite in 2022, said the agency in a Tuesday briefing, reports The Verge.
Another two instruments from the European Space Agency (ESA) will join other air quality monitoring satellites currently in orbit, with the first set to launch in 2023.
Hourly data will catch episodic pollution
The instruments will collect data to help experts curb the spread of pollutants like nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde, smog, and aerosols. Since the data will be captured hourly, pollution spikes that pop up episodically, especially during rush-hour traffic, or when a power plant needs to churn out extra juice to meet rising power demands.
Additionally, the satellite-mounted instruments will also contextualize pollution within a specified area, and sniff out the source of harmful gases and chemicals.
"What's exciting is getting these pollution sources and pollution transport at different times of the day," said Barry Lefer, a program manager of NASA's Earth Science Division, during a press briefing on Tuesday, reports The Verge. "We'll be able to get more accurate air quality, air pollution forecasts because we'll know about the sources and how these sources change over time."
Advancing pollution detection tech
In the past, space-based instruments have only measured air pollution on a daily basis, and were inserted into polar orbits that pass over the same place on Earth at the same time every day. GEMS is the first air quality sensor to circle the Earth in geostationary orbit, and this means it — and the new generation of space-based instruments — will make continual observations of the same area of the planet.
GEMS' data from studying aerosols and smog over Asia will be available by 2021. NAS wants to follow the trail of pollution from gas and oil fields, drilling platforms and cargo ships, and rush-hour traffic in the U.S. and surrounding countries.
The ESA is also working to enhance the accuracy of its daily air quality forecasts, with emphasis on Europe and North Africa.
"The recipient of the service and the information about the pollution ranges from the person in the street interested in how the pollution level will be this afternoon to the policymaker who is interested in trends and in the compliance of pollution levels with agreed standards," said Ben Veihelmann, a principal investigator for ESA in the Netherlands, to The Verge. He stressed that air pollution in Europe already brings the average life expectancy down by two years, according to a recent study.
Beyond the immediate tracking of global air pollution, the data these instruments collect will also help expand our understanding of the exploding scope of air quality health issues, said scientists collaborating on the project.