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.
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.
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.