NASA sensor will be the first to track smog in real-time over the US

It will go where no other satellite-mounted air pollution monitor has been.
Sade Agard
The TEMPO air pollution sensor is hosted on Intelsat 40e.
The TEMPO air pollution sensor is hosted on Intelsat 40e.

Courtesy of Maxar 

For years, air pollution has been monitored from space using satellites. But now, according to a NASA press release, a space-borne smog sensor will be able to continuously and in real-time transmit data on the dispersion of air pollutants over America.

Given that 99 percent of the world's population is breathing in air that contains high levels of pollutants, exceeding WHO guideline limits, the instrument's data will help improve air pollution forecasts as well as environmental protection policies.

NASA TEMPO: How will it work?

The brand-new sensor, known as Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution (TEMPO), will be the first of its kind to measure concentrations of hazardous air pollutants from geostationary orbit. This is the perimeter of 22,000 miles (36,000 kilometers) above the equator, where satellites remain stationary over a specific location on Earth.

From this point, TEMPO will be able to identify hourly variations in nitrogen oxide, ozone, and formaldehyde concentrations above the entire United States. 

This will give scientists the first chance to track not only how air pollution levels change throughout the day but also the locations where air pollutants move due to atmospheric processes.

All previous satellite-mounted air pollution monitors have been in low Earth orbit, orbiting our globe at no more than 600 miles (1000 km). Although they orbit up to 15 times each day, these satellites only see the same area once or twice during that period, which is insufficient to comprehend how air pollution concentrations change throughout the day.

Studies of phenomena like rush-hour pollution and the movement of emissions from wildfires and volcanoes will also benefit from TEMPO data. Scientists may someday use TEMPO readings when it comes to air quality alerts for individuals in pollution hotspots and those with health difficulties. 

Furthermore, it is hoped the instrument will be a component of a virtual constellation of air quality sensors that will provide scientists with a comprehensive image of air quality across the Northern Hemisphere. After all, air pollution is not just an issue in the US.

The instrument's first air quality investigations will focus on Los Angeles, Chicago, and New York and are planned to begin this summer.

The press release states that TEMPO will launch into space on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on April 7, 2023. It will be mounted on Intelsat's communications satellite Intelsat 40e. It is hoped that the instrument will operate for the entire 15 years that its host spacecraft is in orbit. However, this will all depend on funding. 

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