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Satellite technology now offers major insights into the air we breathe: 'There's a lot of different things to be concerned about'

"[This] is going to be a really big step forward."

"[This] is going to be a really big step forward."

Photo Credit: iStock

A satellite launched last year is helping researchers to measure pollution in North America by the hour.

Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution, or TEMPO, "could help reduce exposure to unhealthy air" by providing daylight data in greater detail than ever before, Smithsonian magazine reported. The satellite-based tool orbits the Earth 22,000 miles above the equator, staying in line with Canada, the United States, and Mexico.

Launched in April, it took its first measurements July 31. A few days later, it cataloged nitrogen dioxide tropospheric column density that showed concentrations in Washington, D.C.; New York; Los Angeles; and Las Vegas that were much worse at 12:14 p.m. ET than they were four-plus hours later.

The instrument can track areas as small as four square miles and even assess ozone from ground level to up to 1.25 miles in the sky.

"Down here where we live, in the air that we breathe, there's a lot of different things to be concerned about," Kevin Daugherty told Smithsonian before the satellite was launched last year. "Getting this high resolution … all the way across the country, I think, is going to be a really big step forward in being able to piece together where our major sources of pollution are and how that pollution moves."

Daugherty, TEMPO project manager at NASA's Langley Research Center, noted that tracking pollution this way will help scientists trace daily peaks and valleys. Other satellites photograph only 155 square miles at a time, Smithsonian reported.

The promise is that the improved technology will foster developments such as apps that show real-time pollution data for sensitive groups and other people. It could also allow for alerts and forecasts about particulate matter, volatile organic compounds, and other chemicals that pose problems.

TEMPO is a joint venture among NASA and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory. 

In an August news release, Kelly Chance, SAO senior physicist and TEMPO principal investigator, said nearly 50 studies using TEMPO were already being planned.

With other developments — such as General Electric's carbon capture concept and the Methane Man's methane-eating microbes, which also produce soil-enriching nutrients — it could usher in a new era of cleaner air.

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