NASA is in town, Porterville site of NASA air quality study

Dr. Anne Thompson, lead scientist and professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University, center, Dr. Douglas Martins, field leader and post-doctoral researcher in the meteorology department at Penn State, left, and graduate student Hannah Halliday, inflate a weather balloon that will measure air quality Thursday. The collected data will allow for better observation of air quality from space.

Article courtesy of Porterville, CA

In case it’s gone unnoticed, the plane that has been flying at an unusually low altitude over Porterville is part of a $30 million NASA study aimed at helping scientists to get a better handle on how to measure and forecast air quality from space.

The five-year airborne mission, called DISCOVER-AQ — Deriving Information on Surface conditions from Column and Vertically Resolved Observations Relevant to Air Quality — is aimed at improving the ability of satellites to consistently observe air quality in the lowest part of the atmosphere.

The study involves two airplanes, equipped with scientific instruments that measure air pollutants such as ozone, sulfur-dioxide, carbon monoxide and particulate matter, that will fly over the San Joaquin Valley between Bakersfield and Fresno through mid-February.

Test flights began Wednesday with air sampling focused on agricultural and traffic corridors in the Valley. A four-engine P3B turboprop plane will fly spiral flights over the ground stations at an altitude of 15,000 feet to as low as 1,000 feet, according to NASA. A smaller two-engine B200 King Air aircraft will collect data from as high as 26,000 feet. Both planes will fly in from NASA’s Dryden Aircraft Operations Facility in Palmdale.

The flight path passes over six ground-based monitoring sites. Anne Thompson and her team of researchers from Pennsylvania State University man one of those sites, currently based at the Sequoia National Forest headquarters in Porterville. On Thursday, the team spent the afternoon launching a weather balloon used to monitor air quality in the region.

“We started looking at East Coast cities and highways and a mix of things in 2011. This is our second campaign in the DISCOVER series, and the focus here is the winter-time particle problems that you have in the Valley because of what’s emitted,” Thompson. “And, that is a lot of nitrogen oxides and other pollutants that are reacting, and the pollution builds up because of your inversions. So, we have a summer problem in the East Coast — you have a winter problem.”

Thompson said that the California series of flights is one of four DISCOVER-AQ field campaigns, with the first being conducted over the Baltimore-Washington, D.C., area in July, 2011.

We’re going to Houston next, the highest gas pollution city in the country now — L.A. is cleaned up,” she said. “We’re going there in September and we’re probably finishing up in 2014.”

James Crawford, the mission’s principal investigator at NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., said that aside from preparing scientists to make better observations from space, DISCOVER-AQ will also determine the best mix of observations to have at the surface when NASA has new satellite instruments in orbit.

“NASA is planning to launch that satellite instrument called TEMP in 2017,” Crawford said in a press release issued Jan. 10.