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Eye in the Sky to Detect Pollutants

Launching in April, the satellite mission TEMPO will detect pollutants at a neighborhood scale across the United States.

Artist rendering of the TEMPO satellite
Artist rendering of the satellite | Maxar Technologies

Factory smokestacks belch plumes of chemicals. Clouds of tailpipe emissions waft from roadways. Each day, these and many other sources add to a stew of air pollutants harmful to human health and the environment - and it’s a problem that’s not always easy to spot.

But thanks to a collaboration between NASA and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, a revolutionary new tool will soon offer a more detailed analysis of air pollution that will keep an eye on the air we breathe from more than 22,000 miles above the ground.

The satellite-based Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution (TEMPO) instrument will monitor the chemistry and changing dynamics of many major pollutants hourly, at extremely detailed resolutions.

TEMPO’s tracking will reveal the interactions between weather and atmospheric pollutants like never before, to the benefit of scientists, citizens who hope to avoid bad air quality days and even those tasked with improving the air we breathe.

“When managers are trying to figure out how to most effectively clean up the air quality, having that understanding of what’s going on in their area, on a particular day, under a particular set of conditions. That’s the information they need to make the most effective decisions,” says Arlene Fiore, an atmospheric and planetary scientist at MIT.

TEMPO, described as an orbiting atmospheric chemistry lab, employs a spectrometer sensitive to both visible and ultraviolet wavelengths. The system’s light-collecting mirror will make a complete east-to-west scan of the continent every single daylight hour.

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