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Scientists will soon be able to monitor air pollution hourly from space

NASA, South Korea, and the European Space Agency are working together on a “virtual constellation” of space-based instruments to document global air quality in unprecedented detail. For the first time, scientists will be able to track pollution from space on an hourly basis.

The first instrument to launch was South Korea’s Geostationary Environment Monitoring Spectrometer (GEMS) on February 18th, which flew into space mounted on a Korean satellite also tasked with ocean surface monitoring. NASA plans to send a nearly identical instrument to space aboard a commercial communications satellite in 2022, it said in a briefing today. They’ll be followed by the European Space Agency’s two instruments that will join its existing air quality monitoring satellites, with the first taking off in 2023.

The data they collect will boost efforts to reign in pollutants including nitrogen dioxide, smog, formaldehyde, and aerosols. Hourly data will better capture pollution that pops up episodically, like rush-hour traffic or a power plant that switches on to meet peak power demands. The satellite-mounted instruments will also be able to see whether pollution within a certain region was generated there or whether it wafted over from another country.

“What’s exciting is getting these pollution sources and pollution transport at different times of the day,” Barry Lefer, a program manager in NASA’s Earth Science Division, said in a press briefing today. “We’ll be able to get more accurate air quality, air pollution forecasts because we’ll know about the sources and how these sources change over time.”

Read more: Scientists will soon be able to monitor air pollution hourly from space


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