NASA’s TEMPO Mission Launched This Weekend to Monitor Pollution in North America
Air pollution in North America has become increasingly concerning as the planet warms and air quality causes health problems in people. NASA has recently launched an instrument to measure air pollution every hour across the continent.
On Thursday, October 19th, NASA launched a new instrument into orbit to monitor atmospheric pollution levels from Canada to Mexico. This is the first monitoring system of its kind and can measure pollution hourly across the continent.
How it works
The TEMPO is an instrument attached to a geostationary satellite already in orbit fixed above North America during the day. It is a UV and visible light spectrometer. A spectrometer detects various wavelengths of electromagnetic radiation on the electromagnetic spectrum.
This particular instrument monitors UV and visible light meaning wavelengths of 290–740 nm. The TEMPO also has a unique special resolution to monitor these wavelengths specifically across several square miles. This is revolutionary and important as previous air quality monitors were not as precise and measure over 100 square miles.
Scientists use the spectrometer to monitor levels of ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and other aerosols in the atmosphere. Each of these compounds have understood spectral output, so by taking spectral “photos” of the atmosphere we are able to measure the levels of these gases.
The need for these measurements
TEMPO will monitor ozone levels in the lower atmosphere which directly impacts our health. Ground level ozone is created as cars and other fossil fuel burners emit nitrogen oxides and volatile organic compounds. These chemicals react in sunlight to form ozone (O3).
In the body, ozone has been found to constrict airways making breathing difficult. Ozone pollution is especially dangerous for people with breathing conditions as well as children and elderly folks.
Low level ozone also can harm vegetation and crops therefore throwing off growing season and farms’ productivity. In plants, ozone reduces photosynthesis, essentially cutting off plants’ energy source.
Data from TEMPO would have been very useful this year as the Canadian wildfires brought dangerous air quality levels into the northern United States. Hourly spectrometer measurements of air quality would have potentially given warnings of inclement poor air quality and allowed for more accurate forecasting of smoky air.
Hope for future policy
The TEMPO mission will hopefully become a useful tool for lawmakers to justify anti-fossil fuel and pollution bills. The ability to quantify air pollution on a local scale is an extremely valuable asset.
The data will allow people to compare pollution on a city to city and day to day basis. Meaning, they can measure the success of pollution reducing policies as well as see where and when the most pollution is occurring across the continent.
This is a revolutionary step for reducing pollution. We will be able to see the particles in the atmosphere that were previously invisible to us. This visualization will hopefully give people a reality check on how much pollution is occurring and influence them to work to put a stop to practices that release harmful chemicals into the air.