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NewsFlash: NASA Looks to Improve Ground-Level Pollution Detection

NewsFlash: NASA Looks to Improve Ground-Level Pollution Detection


For environmental and human health reasons, it is important to monitor air quality and track air pollution globally. Current technology allows satellites orbiting Earth to detect pollution, but has limited ability to distinguish between pollution on the surface and in the upper atmosphere.

To better understand how pollution is distributed across different levels of the atmosphere, NASA has been flying reconnaissance airplanes at various altitudes over the Houston, Texas region. These flights are part of NASA’s DISCOVER-AQ mission, which also has measured pollution levels above the Baltimore-Washington, DC area and the San Joaquin Valley in California.

Scientists will compare the information obtained by NASA aircraft with that gathered from satellites and ground-based monitoring stations. In addition to describing air quality over the locations chosen for DISCOVER-AQ, data collected will help to improve satellite-based pollution measurement and tracking worldwide, refine information for regions that do not have robust ground-based monitoring sites, and increase the accuracy of air quality models and predictions. 


Extension Activities

  • Dust Catchers (particles in the air) – Students use “dust catchers” to gauge air pollution in their homes or classrooms. Note that NASA’s DISCOVER-AQ aircraft are studying particles smaller than those students will see in their dust catchers.
  • Modeling Earth’s Atmosphere – Students make a model of Earth’s atmosphere and learn why it is so important to life on our planet. To illustrate the limitations of current tools for measuring atmospheric pollution, have students place markers on the map that represent ground-based and orbital satellite pollution monitors. Ask students to predict the atmospheric level(s) in which NASA’s airplanes fly. Then, have students mark the planes’ actual approximate heights: 1) spiraling between 15,000 feet (4.6 km), or 2.3 cm on the model, and 1,000 feet (0.3 km), or 0.15 cm on the model; and 2) flying at a consistent altitude of 26,000 feet (7.9 km), or 4 cm on the model. Were the students’ predications correct? Note that these altitudes are in troposphere, where greenhouse gases reside.