Revealing Hidden Pollution: NASA’s Low-Level Urban Flights

by Henrik Andersen
5 comments
AEROMMA Project

NASA’s DC-8 aircraft sails over urban landscapes gathering air quality data. Credit: NASA

The AEROMMA project, a joint venture between NOAA and NASA, is examining human-made pollution in North American cities. This summer of 2023, it will send NASA’s DC-8 aircraft over these metropolitan areas. Contrary to past studies focused on car emissions, this project hones in on pollution from commonplace products like personal hygiene and cleaning supplies. AEROMMA aims to gauge city-wide emission flux by consolidating different observational systems and models and working alongside other air quality investigations.

A Shift in Air Pollution Research

Traditionally, the main focus of air quality and pollution studies has been vehicular emissions. However, urban environments are seeing less pollution from this source. Consequently, scientists leading AEROMMA this summer are shifting their focus towards other anthropogenic, or human-caused, pollution sources.

Overview of the AEROMMA Project

AEROMMA, which stands for Atmospheric Emissions and Reactions Observed from Megacities to Marine Areas, is an initiative spearheaded by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA. From late June to mid-August 2023, the researchers will use NASA’s DC-8 aircraft, the world’s largest airborne science lab, to conduct low-altitude flights over numerous cities, collecting data on pollution sources. The DC-8 is managed by NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center.

Project Objectives and Approach

The project aims to scrutinize air quality over North America’s most populous regions, including Los Angeles, Chicago, New York, and Toronto. Through a series of low-altitude flights using the DC-8, the team will investigate urban emissions and the atmospheric chemical reactions impacting air quality and climate. These emissions come from everyday items such as personal care products, cleaning supplies, small gas-burning appliances, and even landfills.

Everyday Items as Sources of Pollution

Unlike pollution from transportation, pollution from daily products corresponds to the population size, as these items are universally used. Products we regularly use, such as window cleaners or dry shampoos, are designed to release vapors into the atmosphere for various purposes, such as spreading scent or aiding in drying coatings. These volatile ingredients are typically fossil fuel derivatives and subsequently affect our overall air quality, particularly in major cities where the impact is both noticeable and quantifiable.

Collaboration and Involvement of Students

The AEROMMA project integrates airborne, ground, and satellite observation systems, using cutting-edge air quality and climate models to determine the flux of human-caused emissions over North American cities. The project’s low-level flights will align with high-altitude flights from aircraft run by NASA’s Langley Research Center as part of the Synergistic Tempo Air Quality Science (STAQS) project. Working with other partners conducting concurrent air quality studies — AEROMMA, STAQS, CUPiDS, GOTHAAM — the team aspires to establish a comprehensive observation system that surpasses what any single mission could achieve independently.

Safety for the project will be managed by NASA’s aircraft personnel, while NOAA scientists will lead the scientific inquiries. Additionally, both NASA and NOAA teams will mentor undergraduates from NASA’s Student Airborne Research Program (SARP), involving them in research during the Los Angeles flights.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about AEROMMA Project

What is the AEROMMA project?

The AEROMMA project is a joint initiative between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA. The project is focused on studying human-caused pollution in North American cities, specifically emissions from everyday products like personal hygiene and cleaning supplies. The research is conducted using NASA’s DC-8 aircraft that flies at low altitudes over urban areas.

Who is involved in the AEROMMA project?

The AEROMMA project is a collaboration between the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA. The project also involves undergraduate students from NASA’s Student Airborne Research Program (SARP), who contribute to the research during the Los Angeles flights. The safety for the project is managed by NASA’s aircraft personnel, while NOAA scientists lead the scientific investigations.

What type of pollution does the AEROMMA project study?

The AEROMMA project studies anthropogenic, or human-caused, pollution. Specifically, it focuses on emissions from everyday products such as personal care items, cleaning supplies, small gas-burning appliances, and even landfills.

What methodology does the AEROMMA project use?

The AEROMMA project employs NASA’s DC-8 aircraft to conduct a series of low-altitude flights over several cities in North America. It integrates airborne, ground, and satellite observation systems, and uses advanced air quality and climate models to quantify the flux of human-caused emissions over these cities. The low-altitude flights are coordinated with high-altitude flights from other aircraft for a more comprehensive observation.

Why is the focus shifting from vehicle emissions to everyday product emissions in air pollution research?

While traditionally the main focus of air pollution studies has been on vehicular emissions, urban environments are witnessing less pollution from this source. Therefore, scientists are increasingly turning their attention towards other anthropogenic sources of pollution, particularly emissions from everyday products, which correspond to the population size as these items are universally used.

More about AEROMMA Project

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5 comments

KevinJ July 16, 2023 - 2:59 pm

Can’t believe we’re at a point where deodorant and shampoo are a pollution problem. what next, eh?

Reply
EcoWarrior01 July 16, 2023 - 3:42 pm

Every bit of awareness helps, right? Now, if we can just get everyone to switch to eco friendly cleaning products…

Reply
sally_rose July 16, 2023 - 4:14 pm

so cool that NASA is involved! Never thought about my perfume contributing to pollution though.. it’s crazy!

Reply
GeoTrekker July 16, 2023 - 8:07 pm

Its amazing to see that pollution research is going beyond just vehicular emissions. Way to go NASA and NOAA!

Reply
SkyHigh23 July 16, 2023 - 10:03 pm

lol, so now even our morning showers are polluting the air?! never would have thunk it, really 😛

Reply

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