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.


Existing fertilizer fee is used in research, not cleaning up water

A state report last month suggested a farm fertilizer fee to help fix drinking-water problems, especially in rural towns around the San Joaquin Valley.

I wrote about it, but I should have added that there already is a fertilizer fee in California, a reader said. The existing fee funds research, however, not dirty-water cleanup.

It is the Fertilizer Research and Education Program in the California Department of Food and Agriculture. Last year, Assembly Bill 2174 from Assembly Member Luis Alejo, D-Salinas, made the money available for research on more efficient application of fertilizers.

It would not provide near enough money anyway. The analysis on the fund last year showed it would be worth about $1 million. The state needs $36 million a year to address drinking water problems.

The state report last month focused on nitrate contamination, which comes from fertilizers, animal waste, septic systems and sewage treatment plants.

study released last year by the University of California at Davis said the problem threatens water for 250,000 people from Fresno to Bakersfield. Nitrates can cause a potentially fatal blood disease in infants.

Grants and loans through the state have not panned out for  some towns that can’t afford to pay back loans or maintain treatment facilities. Another funding source is needed, say leaders of the State Water Resources Control Board, which did the report.

I have not seen any legislation yet to raise the funding.