Fresno Bee Newsroom Blog

NASA takes its air-quality research thrill ride to Houston

NASA P-3B Orion

NASA’s P-3B Orion research airplane on the Palmdale Airport tarmac after a flight over Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley in January. The airplane is part of NASA’s DISCOVER-AQ research project to measure air pollution in the skies over major air-quality problem areas. Photo by Tim Sheehan / The Fresno Bee

Back in January, a pair of NASA research airplanes packed full of scientists and instruments flew over Fresno and the San Joaquin Valley to measure winter air pollution in the region.

Now, the five-year, $30 million DISCOVER-AQ mission is getting ready to take to the skies over Houston, Texas, in the latest stage of science efforts to develop the next generation of satellites to measure air pollution from space.

The Houston flights will begin Sept. 4.

In late January and early February, the project made 10 overflights above the Valley — the second stop on DISCOVER-AQ’s research tour. In 2011, the team made similar flights over the Baltimore/Washington D.C. region.

The flights capture public attention because one of the airplanes, a four-engine P-3B Orion, flies lumbering low-level passes and stomach-turning spirals around selected ground stations where pollution monitors are set up. Instruments aboard the airplane measure the air quality outside in real time at altitudes from below 1,000 feet up to about 9,000.

A layer of haze blankets the San Joaquin Valley as seen from NASA’s P-3B Orion research airplane. Photo by Tim Sheehan / The Fresno Bee

At the same time, a second smaller airplane cruises much higher, at about 26,000 feet, using lasers and other instruments to simulate how an orbiting satellite sees air pollution through the various layers of the atmosphere.

Here are some of the Twitter exerpts from my day with the Orion’s pilots and researchers when the mission was in the Valley (trust me when I say it was an adventure!).

By combining the observations from the ground, the spiraling Orion and the high-altitude plane, researchers hope to better understand and predict how, when and where pollution forms, and then develop satellites that can provide similar multi-level measurements from space.


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