July 18, 2024

World’s biggest flying lab comes to Asia on air pollution mission


NASA has launched an extensive series of flights across Asia employing the world’s largest airborne laboratory, marking a significant stride in the endeavor to enhance models crucial for forecasting and combating air pollution.

With millions of fatalities annually attributed to air pollution, refining the capability to identify its sources and behavior holds the potential to bolster the accuracy of public warning systems. The initiative commenced this week in the Philippines, where NASA’s DC-8 aircraft embarks on flights lasting up to eight hours, often skimming just 15 meters (50 feet) above the ground to collect air particles for examination.

Barry Lefer, a representative from NASA, elucidated to journalists at Clark International Airport, situated approximately 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Manila, the pivotal role of these direct measurements in informing air quality forecasting models. These models, reliant on data from ground stations and satellites, encounter limitations in discerning the dispersion of pollutants in the atmosphere, a gap that airborne readings aim to bridge, thereby augmenting the interpretation of satellite data and refining the accuracy of predictive models.

Maria Antonia Loyzaga, Secretary of the Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources, underscored the imperative of amalgamating data from air, space, and ground sources to shape policies concerning public health, industrial compliance, and ecosystem preservation.

Equipped with a myriad of highly sensitive instruments, the NASA laboratory has conducted two flights this week over densely populated regions of the Philippines, including the capital, tracing a figure-eight pattern. Complementing this endeavor is a smaller NASA Gulfstream jet, which employs its instruments to generate three-dimensional maps of airborne pollutants.

In the ensuing weeks, these aircraft will embark on research flights over South Korea, Malaysia, and Thailand. The findings from this comprehensive study will be disseminated to the public within a year, as affirmed by NASA program officials.

The collaborative project, known as ASIA-AQ, signifies a partnership between the US agency and governments within a region grappling with some of the highest rates of air pollution-related mortality worldwide. Maria Cambaliza, a scientist at the Manila Observatory, emphasized during a press briefing on Thursday that approximately one-third of global air pollution-related deaths are concentrated in Asia, with the Philippines reporting 100 such deaths per 100,000 individuals.

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