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Tracking harmful particulate air pollution and weather developments from space

Posted on 15th March 2016 at 16:32pm

Nasa has selected two proposals for new Earth science investigations that will put new instruments in low-Earth orbit to track harmful particulate air pollutants and study the development of tropical cyclones.

The Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (TROPICS) investigation, 12 CubeSats about a foot long each, will study the development of tropical cyclones by taking measurements of temperature, precipitation and cloud properties as often as every 21 minutes (Imagery: MIT Lincoln Laboratory)

Observations of small atmospheric aerosols from the Multi-Angle Imager for Aerosols (MAIA) will be combined with health information to determine the toxicity of different particulate matter types in airborne pollutants over the world’s major cities. David Diner of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California, is the principal investigator.

The Time-Resolved Observations of Precipitation structure and storm Intensity with a Constellation of Smallsats (Tropics) investigation will develop and launch a constellation of CubeSats to study the development of tropical cyclones through rapid-revisit sampling. William Blackwell of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Lincoln Laboratory in Lexington is the principal investigator.

The instruments were competitively selected from 14 proposals submitted to NASA's Earth Venture Instrument-3 program. Earth Venture investigations are small, targeted science investigations that complement Nasa’s larger missions. The National Research Council recommended in 2007 that Nasa undertake this type of regularly solicited, quick-turnaround project.

MAIA uses a twin-camera instrument that will make radiometric and polarimetric measurements needed to characterise the sizes, compositions, and quantities of particulate matter in air pollution. As part of the MAIA investigation, researchers will combine MAIA measurements with population health records to better understand the connections between aerosol pollutants and health problems such as adverse birth outcomes, cardiovascular and respiratory diseases, and premature deaths.

Tropics will consist of 12 CubeSats, each about one foot long and weighing just 8.5 pounds, that use scanning microwave radiometers to measure temperature, humidity, precipitation and cloud properties. The CubeSats will be launched into three separate orbital planes to enable the overall constellation to monitor changes in tropical cyclones as frequently as every 21 minutes.

The Tropics team has previous experience developing CubeSats and analysing satellite measurements of storms, and includes partnerships with Nasa’s Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia, Goddard, several universities and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The two investigations were selected from Nasa’s third Earth Venture Instrument competition. The first Earth Venture Instrument investigation, selected in 2012, the Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution (TEMPO) mission, will be the first space-based sensor to monitor major chemical air pollutants across North American hourly during daytime. It will share a ride on a commercial satellite as a hosted payload and orbit about 22,000 miles above the equator.

The second set of investigations selected in 2014 were the Global Ecosystem Dynamics Investigation (GEDI) and ECOsystem Spaceborne Thermal Radiometer Experiment on Space Station (ECOSTRESS). These instruments will measure changes in global vegetation from the International Space Station, illuminating how forests and ecosystems are affected by changes in climate and land use.

Earth Venture missions are managed by Nasa’s Earth System Science Pathfinder programme located at Langley for the Science Mission Directorate. The missions in this programme provide an innovative approach to address Earth science research with periodic windows of opportunity to accommodate new scientific priorities.

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