NASA is expanding their DISCOVER-AQ research program, which measures pollution levels on Earth from space, to help them fully understand how to precisely measure gaps in air pollution data. NASA has been measuring these levels from space aboard their Aqua and Aura satellites but have found that distinguishing pollution high in the atmosphere from ground level pollution has been difficult from that distance. Beginning at the end of June, NASA will be double checking that data with information gathered from low level flights over the DISCOVER-AQ research area as well as with ground level instruments. These flights are the start of a four year initiative in which NASA hopes to find out exactly what quality of air we are breathing in down here.

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What we’re trying to do with DISCOVER-AQ is to fill the knowledge gap that limits our ability to monitor air pollution with satellites,” said James Crawford, the mission’s principal investigator at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, VA. The plan is to have the ground aircraft fly over the same area that the satellites cover each afternoon — the series of satellites in question have been dubbed the Afternoon Constellation or “A-train” — and then to compare the data from each of the crafts for irregularities or similarities.

Traditionally, urban areas have highly documented pollution monitoring systems but it seems there are a lot of areas that don’t have any information at all about their pollution levels. Surprisingly, DISCOVER-AQ — which is an acronym for Deriving Information on Surface conditions from Column and Vertically Resolved Observations Relevant to Air Quality — will peg the eastern seaboard of the United States as its first area of research highlighting the fact that perhaps not even all of our urban areas have well documented pollution levels. This multi-level monitoring system will be a valuable tool in improving our knowledge of the air we breathe. “One instrument is not more important than another,” said Jennifer Hains, a research statistician with the Maryland Department of the Environment in Baltimore. “The combination of all of them makes this campaign valuable.” Perhaps our only qualm about this research initiative — and it is a big one — is that measuring pollution levels by aircraft creates more pollution. Maybe NASA needs to get their hands on one of Siemens’ new hybrid-electric airplanes to reduce their own impact on the data they are researching.