November 12, 2012
A $90 million NASA instrument mounted on a commercial communications satellite in geostationary orbit will monitor air pollutants over North America beginning in 2017, the first step toward what researchers hope will be a global network of pollution monitors in space.
The U.S. space agency selected a proposal from the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory in Cambridge, Mass., from among 14 submitted for the first Earth Venture Instrument award. The Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution (Tempo) instrument will ride as a hosted payload on a commercial communications satellite in a geostationary Earth-orbit (GEO) slot that will give it a view of North America in its entirety.
From that vantage point the instrument will be designed to deliver hourly readouts of the atmosphere in ultraviolet and visible wavelengths during daylight hours. That data will allow principal investigator Kelly Chance and his colleagues to measure tropospheric concentrations of ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, formaldehyde and aerosols. Similar measurements from spacecraft in low Earth orbit typically are possible only once a day.
“We expect to see significant advances in air quality research with Tempo,” said John Grunsfeld, associate administrator of the agency’s Science Mission Directorate. “The vantage point of geostationary orbit offers the potential for many new opportunities in other areas of Earth system science.”
Tempo is NASA’s second planned hosted payload, following the Laser Communications Relay Demonstration that is also set for launch in 2017. Both payloads will ride piggyback on as-yet-unselected commercial satellites.
NASA will spend as much as $90 million for the Tempo instrument, plus the cost of integration into the host satellite and a share of the launch. The agency expects there will be “numerous” satellites launched in 2017 that will be suitable for the mission.
Space agencies in Europe and Asia also are considering similar observation efforts after Tempo is launched, which could lead to an international constellation of pollution-monitoring instruments in geostationary orbits, NASA states. The U.S. instrument will be the first funded under the broader Earth System Pathfinder program of small, targeted, scientific missions designed to complement larger-scale Earth-science efforts. The first stand-alone satellite in the program—the $152 million Cyclone Global Navigation Satellite System—was awarded earlier this year to the University of Michigan.
Other members of the Tempo team include Ball Aerospace and Technologies Corp. of Boulder, Colo.; NASA’s Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., and Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Several U.S. universities and research organizations also will participate.
Langley manages the Earth System Science Pathfinder program, which plans to issue two new requests for proposals next year, and to continue making regular awards for airborne, satellite and hosted-payload missions, the agency says.