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The PPM Blog

Air Quality Observations from Space (Seriously)

a man wearing a suit and tie smiling at the cameraContributed by Isaac Smith, Principal, PPM Consultants

Even though many of you reading this article are in an environmental or science-related field, the content will probably come as a surprise to most everyone.  In the past few months, I’ve seen multiple headlines or articles that all centered around the technological strides in measuring various air quality parameters.  Some of them were from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and centered around air toxics and other fugitive air emissions, where the measurement capabilities have greatly increased in a relatively short time frame, but the one that caught my eye was titled, “Air Quality from Space”. 

For those of you who don’t know me or my career/background, a long time ago, in what seems like a galaxy far away, I spent 13 years working at an air emissions testing firm.  I think my first job title was “Pollution Control Specialist”, which now sounds more like I was picking up trash somewhere, but for those in and around the industry, that’s a fancy way to say I was a “stack tester”.  Now there’s nothing wrong with being a stack tester.  In fact, I could argue that while working in that role that I learned more than I have the rest of my adult life combined, as you are exposed, in more than one way, to various products, pollutants, industries, geographies, control technology, personalities, etc. than you could ever imagine.  It’s a really good job for someone young, single, in good shape, likes to travel, and has a thirst for long hot/cold days in the field, but where you have the ability to really learn about where things come from, and what it takes to manufacture them.  When I say “things” I’m referring to anything from electricity, gas/diesel and other petrochemicals, lumber, paper, specialty chemicals, Splenda, automobile parts, breakfast sausage, animal crematoriums, etc.  I could go on and on, and the stories are never-ending, but this is supposed to be a story about air quality observations from space (said in a deep and bellowing voice, or at least that’s how I hear it in my head).

The purpose of my stack test ramblings was to communicate that when it comes to measuring air quality, or the lack there of, I have spent 20+ years in and around that industry, and I have seen countless problems when trying to measure something simple, right here on Earth.  So, when I see an article that refers to measuring a list of constituents, from space mind you, I had to see exactly what was going on.

NASA’s groundbreaking strides in satellite technology have ushered in a new era of environmental monitoring, with the recent launch of a satellite equipped to conduct comprehensive air quality assessments. The satellite, aptly named AQM-1 (Air Quality Monitor-1), is a collaboration between NASA and the EPA. Its primary mission is to provide real-time data on air quality parameters. Equipped with advanced sensors and imaging technology, AQM-1 is designed to detect a wide range of air pollutants, including particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, ozone, and volatile organic compounds.

One of the key features of AQM-1 is its ability to monitor air quality on a global scale. Traditional ground-based monitoring stations have limitations in terms of coverage, especially in remote areas. This global coverage enables scientists and environmental agencies to track pollution sources, understand regional variations, and assess the long-range transport of pollutants.

NASA’s collaboration with the EPA enhances the satellite’s capabilities by integrating it into the broader framework of the agency’s air quality monitoring initiatives. The satellite’s data is not only valuable for regulatory purposes but also for scientific research. By continuously monitoring air quality on a global scale, researchers can study trends, identify emerging issues, and contribute to our understanding of the complex interactions within Earth’s atmosphere.

I know that NASA has some of the brightest people around and the newly launched AQM-1 satellite represents an enormous leap forward in our ability to monitor and understand air quality on a global scale but the cynic, or possibly the realist, in me can’t help but have a list of questions far lengthier than this article.  I applaud NASA and the EPA in this joint venture, and also have to question why we can’t seem to agree on emission limits from one state or country to another if we’re now focusing our efforts on measuring global air quality from space.

I’ve seen plenty of problems attempting to measure ambient air right here on Earth.  My clients and I would be happy if we could just have a stack test conducted without 20 problems and countless delays. Maybe the next time we need to have some stacks tested, we’ll just dial up NASA and get a proposal for them to do it remotely, from space, and save on the mobilization charges.

Links to other articles or websites on this topic are provided below.


NASA’s Earth Observing System

NASA Launches TEMPO To Track Air Pollution On A Whole New Level – CleanTechnica

Next Generation Emission Measurement (NGEM) Research for Fugitive Air Pollution | US EPA

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