NASA reveals first images of US air quality and pollution

TEMPO is part of NASA's Earth Venture Instrument program. Its first data maps reveal the live air quality in US cities and the effects of pollution.
Amal Jos Chacko
Representational image of pollution in a city.jpg
Representational image of pollution in a city.


NASA's groundbreaking mission to monitor air pollutants from space, TEMPO (Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution), has started bearing fruit with the release of its first data maps, according to a press release by the agency. 

Launched earlier this year on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, TEMPO is already transmitting vital information about major air pollutants over North America, marking a significant step towards achieving clean air for all citizens. 

President Biden and Vice President Harris have strongly advocated for improved air quality as a fundamental right, aligning with TEMPO's mission to support the administration's ambitious climate agenda.

Game-changing insights

Perched at an orbit of 22,000 miles above the equator, TEMPO holds the distinction of being the inaugural space-based instrument tailored to continually gauge air quality across North America at a resolution of a few square miles. 

Notably, the instrument's advanced spectrometer enables it to uncover pollutants concealed within sunlight reflections. "Neighborhoods and communities across the country will benefit from TEMPO’s game-changing data for decades to come," emphasized NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, speaking about the mission’s potential.

The TEMPO mission's focus extends beyond general pollution monitoring. Its observations promise to greatly enhance studies on various pollution sources, including traffic-related pollutants, the dispersion of smoke and ash from wildfires and volcanic activity, and the repercussions of fertilizer usage in agriculture. 

Furthermore, the data gathered by TEMPO will facilitate assessments of the health consequences linked to pollutants, ultimately contributing to the creation of highly detailed air pollution maps. These maps will address air quality disparities within local communities, aiding scientists and decision-makers in developing targeted interventions.

NASA reveals first images of US air quality and pollution
nitrogen dioxide levels over the DC/Philadelphia/New York region at 12:14 on August 2, measured by TEMPO

Debut maps and future prospects

As TEMPO takes its initial steps toward full-scale operation, the first data maps provide a glimpse of its potential. Concentrations of nitrogen dioxide gas, a common indicator of pollution, were revealed around cities and major transportation routes in North America. 

By measuring sunlight reflected and scattered by Earth's surface, clouds, and atmosphere, TEMPO discerns atmospheric gasses' impact on sunlight absorption. The resulting spectra reveal the concentrations of various gasses, including nitrogen dioxide.

The released visualizations spotlight six scans conducted on August 2, each revealing pollution patterns in distinct regions. Detailed views hone in on areas such as the southwestern U.S., the Texas-Louisiana corridor, and the busy Interstate 95 stretch between New York and Washington. 

The data was collected during TEMPO's "first light" phase, which encompassed calibration tests and solar observations between July 31 and August 2.

“TEMPO is beginning to measure hourly daytime air pollution over greater North America. It measures ozone, nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde, aerosols, water vapor and several trace gasses,” said Kelly Chance, SAO senior physicist and TEMPO principal investigator.

Almost close to 50 studies are in the pipeline, leveraging TEMPO's unique data collection capabilities to advance pollution-related research, Chance revealed.

While TEMPO's journey has just begun, it is undeniable that the instrument will contribute to advancing air quality. As TEMPO prepares to join the ranks of other air pollution monitors across the Northern Hemisphere, including South Korea's Geostationary Environment Monitoring Spectrometer and ESA's Sentinel-4 satellite, the prospects for comprehensive global air quality insights are brighter than ever.

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