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NASA’s Flying Chemical Lab Tests Urban Air Pollution

Scientists with the NOAA and NASA showed off a NASA DC-8 airplane parked at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base that is said to be the world's largest flying chemistry laboratory.

air pollution
(TNS) — Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and NASA showed off a NASA DC-8 airplane parked at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base on Thursday that is said to be "the world's largest flying chemistry laboratory."

The Dayton Daily News first reported in late July that NASA and NOAA are using Wright-Patterson as a base of operations as it studies air pollution over big cities for the next two weeks.

It's the first investigation of its kind, and Wright-Patterson is making it possible, scientists said in interviews Thursday.

"Without (Wright-Patterson's) support, we literally would not be here," said Sarah Kapnick, NOAA chief scientist.

The project has been dubbed the "Atmospheric Emissions and Reactions Observed from Megacities to Marine Areas" — or "AEROMMA." (NASA scientists pronounce that last word as "aroma.")

NOAA and its partners use the 33 scientific instruments aboard the DC-8 to collect chemical measurements over heavily populated cities, including New York City, Chicago and Toronto.

One reason Wright-Patterson was chosen as home base for the mission is because it's within easy flying reach of those cities, said Megan Melamed, deputy director of the NOAA Chemical Sciences Lab.

There is no other plane like the DC-8 in the world, Barry Lefer, NASA tropospheric composition program manager, said in an interview in a Wright-Patt hangar Thursday.

Working with two smaller NASA Gulfstream planes, the DC-8 flies low over the cities — as low as 1,000 feet, where temperatures are uncomfortably warm and turbulence uncomfortably strong.

Recently, the plane flew that low over Chicago for eight hours, with the occasional spiral thrown in for good measure, said Charles Brock, a NOAA physicist.

"People get sick, unfortunately," Brock said with a smile.

Asked how much NASA has invested into the 1968-built McDonnell-Douglas DC-8, Lefer said: "The short answer is, it's priceless."

NASA recently purchased a Boeing 777 to replace the DC-8.

Four federal agencies, a number of academic institutions and some 200 scientists are participating in the project, studying how pollution sources have shifted over recent decades, away from automobiles and factories to sources like paint thinners, solvents, even personal care products like fingernail polish and deodorant.

The idea is simple: When you know where pollution originates, you can begin to craft a remedy.

"We want to help clean up the atmosphere, to make it easier to breathe," Lefer said.

Air pollution remains a concern. According to Dayton's RAPCA (Regional Air Pollution and Control Agency) office, the Dayton area's air quality index (AQI) measured 71 Thursday morning, a reading in the "moderate" range.

Most people have no problems breathing with moderate measurements. But those with lung diseases such as asthma, the elderly or the ill may feel effects.

And wildfire smoke from Canada at times pushed Dayton's AQI number up to nearly 200 in late June.

NOAA points to what it says are 100,000 premature deaths yearly due to pollution.

Findings from the project will be shared with state and local environmental officials to inform decisions about the best ways to reduce air pollution.

The data will also be used to evaluate the first observations made by NASA's just-launched TEMPO satellite.

It's a satellite that, for the first time, will give scientists hourly pollution data at the "neighborhood level," Melamed said.

© 2023 Springfield News-Sun, Ohio. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.