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NASA's TEMPO mission will revolutionize air quality monitoring

NASA has unveiled the initial data maps from its groundbreaking instrument, the Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution (TEMPO), which was sent to space earlier this year and is now actively transmitting crucial information regarding air quality over North America. 

Biden’s climate agenda 

This development is highly significant, as it aligns with the belief of President Biden and Vice President Harris that everyone is entitled to breathe clean air. 

The data derived from the TEMPO mission will be instrumental in assisting decision makers throughout the nation in realizing this objective and in furthering the Biden Administration’s ambitious climate agenda, which is regarded as the most comprehensive in history.

Positioned in orbit approximately 22,000 miles above the equator, TEMPO is a pioneering space-based device engineered to assess air quality above North America at a resolution of just a few square miles. 

Long-term benefits

NASA Administrator Bill Nelson expressed his optimism about the long-term impact of the data collected by TEMPO: “Neighborhoods and communities across the country will benefit from TEMPO’s game-changing data for decades to come.”

“This summer, millions of Americans felt firsthand the effect of smoke from forest fires on our health. NASA and the Biden-Harris Administration are committed to making it easier for everyday Americans and decisionmakers to access and use TEMPO data to monitor and improve the quality of the air we breathe, benefitting life here on Earth.”

Improving pollution research 

TEMPO’s observations are expected to significantly enhance research on pollution resulting from rush-hour traffic, the dispersal of smoke and ash from forest fires and volcanoes, and the ramifications of fertilizer use on agricultural land. 

The data collected by TEMPO will enable scientists to assess the health consequences of pollutants more accurately and will facilitate the development of air pollution maps at a neighborhood level, thereby improving comprehension of disparities in air quality within a community. 

Predicting air quality 

The data will also be distributed to partner organizations responsible for monitoring and predicting air quality, such as the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

TEMPO was dispatched into space in April aboard a Maxar Intelsat 40e satellite via a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket. It performs hourly daytime scans of the lower atmosphere across North America, spanning from the Atlantic to the Pacific coasts and from approximately Mexico City to central Canada. 

The principal instrument is a sophisticated spectrometer capable of identifying pollution typically obscured within reflected sunlight.

This scientific mission represents a collaborative effort between NASA and the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) located in Cambridge, Massachusetts. 

First images released

The first set of pollution maps released by NASA reveals concentrations of nitrogen dioxide gas emanating from pollution in the vicinity of cities and major transportation routes in North America. 

TEMPO analyzes sunlight that is reflected and scattered off the Earth’s surface, clouds, and atmosphere. Atmospheric gases absorb the sunlight. This reveals the concentrations of several gases in the air, including nitrogen dioxide.

The visualizations depict six scans conducted between 11:12 a.m. and 5:27 p.m. EDT on August 2, with detailed views highlighting the southwestern U.S. from Los Angeles to Las Vegas; from central and eastern Texas to New Orleans; and the Interstate 95 corridor between New York and Washington. 

This data was collected during TEMPO’s “first light” phase from July 31 to August 2, when mission controllers activated the spectrometer to observe the Sun and Earth and initiate a series of tests and solar calibrations.

More about TEMPO

“TEMPO is beginning to measure hourly daytime air pollution over greater North America. It measures ozone, nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde, aerosols, water vapor, and several trace gases. There are already almost 50 science studies being planned that are based around this new way to collect data,” said Kelly Chance, SAO senior physicist and TEMPO principal investigator.

Constructed by Ball Aerospace, the TEMPO instrument was integrated with the Maxar-built Intelsat 40e. Since its launch, teams from NASA, Ball Aerospace, and SAO have been meticulously examining and calibrating the satellite’s systems and components. 

The instrument is scheduled to commence full operations in October, conducting hourly daytime scans and becoming the first instrument to monitor pollution over North America in this manner.

Revolutionary performance 

Kevin Daugherty, TEMPO project manager at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Virginia, expressed his enthusiasm about the initial data received from the TEMPO instrument and its performance in space.

“We are excited to see the initial data from the TEMPO instrument and that the performance is as good as we could have imagined now that it is operating in space,” said Daugherty. “We look forward to completing commissioning of the instrument and then starting science research.”

TEMPO is a component of NASA’s Earth Venture Instrument program, which encompasses small, targeted scientific investigations designed to supplement NASA’s larger research missions. 

Additionally, TEMPO is part of a virtual constellation of air pollution monitors for the Northern Hemisphere, which also includes South Korea’s Geostationary Environment Monitoring Spectrometer and the European Space Agency’s Sentinel-4 satellite.

Video Credit: Kel Elkins, Trent Schindler, and Cindy Starr/NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio

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