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NASA launches device to monitor air pollution from space

April 7, 2023

The new NASA device is capable of measuring air pollution across North America down to the neighborhood level. NASA said the mission isn't just for research, but about "improving life on Earth for all."

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket carrying the Intelsat 40e communications satellite launches from pad 40 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station
Falcon 9 rocket launched from Cape Canaveral Space Station in Florida on early on Friday, carrying the TEMPO deviceImage: Paul Hennessy/AA/picture alliance

A SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket successfully launched from Florida on Friday, carrying a new NASA device that can track air pollution over North America.

The Tropospheric Emissions Monitoring of Pollution (TEMPO) instrument will allow scientists to monitor air pollutants and their emission sources from space more comprehensively than ever before, down to the neighborhood level.

According to Kevin Daugherty, NASA's TEMPO project manager, the instrument will measure pollution and air quality across greater North America on an hourly basis during the daytime, all the way "from Puerto Rico up to the tar sands of Canada."

The data will be used by the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and other agencies responsible for tackling atmospheric pollution.

Why is TEMPO so special?

"The TEMPO mission is about more than just studying pollution — it's about improving life on Earth for all," NASA Administrator Bill Nelson said in a statement.

"By monitoring the effects of everything from rush-hour traffic to pollution from forest fires and volcanoes, NASA data will help improve air quality across North America and protect our planet," he added.

A unique feature of TEMPO, which is about the size of a washing machine and has been described as a chemistry laboratory in space, is that it will be hosted on an Intelsat communications satellite in geostationary orbit.

Existing pollution-monitoring satellites are in low Earth orbit, which means they can only provide observations once a day at a fixed time.

TEMPO will be able to measure atmospheric pollution down to a spatial resolution of 4 square miles (10 square kilometers), or neighborhood level.

Atmospheric Physicist at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics Caroline Nowlan speaks during a news briefing on NASA’s TEMPO instrument at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum on March 14, 2023 in Washington, DC
The TEMPO device has been described as a chemical lab in spaceImage: Alex Wong/Getty Images

What is geostationary orbit?

"Geostationary orbit is a common orbit for weather satellites and communications satellites, but an air quality instrument measuring gases hadn't been there yet," Caroline Nowlan, an atmospheric physicist at the Harvard & Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, explained to news agency AFP.

In a geostationary orbit 22,236 miles (35,786 kilometers) above the equator, TEMPO will match the rotation of the Earth, meaning it will stay over the same location — North America — at all times.

"The great thing about TEMPO is that for the first time we'll be able to make hourly measurements over North America, so we'll be able to see what's happening over a whole day as long as the sun is up," Nowlan added.

TEMPO will have multiple applications from measuring levels of various pollutants to providing air quality forecasts and helping the development of emission-control strategies.

Why is the mission important?

More than 40% of the US population, 137 million people, live in places with unhealthy levels of particle pollution or ozone, according to the American Lung Association. Air pollution is blamed for some 60,000 premature deaths a year.

Among the pollutants tracked by TEMPO will be nitrogen dioxide, produced from the combustion of fossil fuels, formaldehyde and ozone.

The data will be made available online for members of the public to monitor air quality information in their local area.

Daugherty said TEMPO will power up at the end of May or in early June and begin producing data in October, although it will not be made available to the public until April of next year.

This report was written in part with material from the Agence France-Presse (AFP) news agency.

Edited by: Rebecca Staudenmaier

Dmytro Hubenko Dmytro covers stories in DW's newsroom from around the world with a particular focus on Ukraine.