NASA has taken another significant step in monitoring and mitigating the effects of pollution on our planet. The agency has launched a new air quality monitoring tool called TEMPO, which stands for Tropospheric Emissions Monitoring of Pollution Instrument. The innovative instrument was launched into a fixed-rotation orbit around Earth and is expected to keep an eye on a handful of harmful airborne pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide, formaldehyde, and ground-level ozone. These chemicals are the building blocks of smog and have a significant impact on the environment and human health.
TEMPO traveled to space hitched to a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket that launched from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. NASA reports that the launch was completed successfully, with the atmospheric satellite separating from the rocket without any incidents. The agency has also acquired the appropriate signal, and the instrument is expected to begin monitoring duties in late May or early June.
TEMPO sits at a fixed geostationary orbit just above the equator and measures air quality over North America every hour, with regions spaced apart by just a few miles. This is a significant improvement to existing technologies, as current measurements are conducted within areas of 100 square miles. TEMPO should be able to take accurate measurements from neighborhood to neighborhood, giving a comprehensive view of pollution from both the macro and micro levels.
TEMPO offers unique opportunities to pick up new kinds of data, such as changing pollution levels throughout rush hour, the effects of lightning on the ozone layer, the movement of pollution related to forest fires, and the long-term effects of fertilizers on the atmosphere, among other data points. This instrument is the middle child in a group of high-powered instruments tracking pollution, with South Korea’s Geostationary Environment Monitoring Spectrometer already measuring pollution over Asia in 2020. The ESA (European Space Agency) Sentinel-4 satellite is also scheduled to launch in 2024 to handle European and North African measurements. Other tracking satellites will eventually join TEMPO in space, including the forthcoming NASA instrument to measure the planet’s crust.
Interestingly, TEMPO flew into space on a SpaceX rocket rather than a NASA rocket. This is by design, as the agency is testing a new business model to send crucial instruments into orbit. Paying a private company seems to be the more budget-friendly option when compared to sending up a rocket itself.