Nasa captures pollution from space with new probe, Tempo

The new data maps from Tempo could pose huge benefits for Earth, allowing us to “monitor and improve the quality of the air we breathe”.

Date
31 August 2023

For the climate crisis, data visualisation is more than just nice to have. It can make the difference between action or inaction, as proven by the first images to come from Nasa’s visualisation project Tempo, which were released on 24 August.

Tempo monitors pollution – to be specific, it is the first space probe designed to continuously measure air quality above North America with the resolution of a few square miles. Nasa says these data maps can help monitor pollution caused by things like rush-hour traffic or the effects of fertiliser application on farmland. Also, as Tempo can create maps of specific neighbourhoods, the data can be used to help understand disparities in air quality within a singular community, assisting on a local level too.

The first set of images from Tempo show an area as small as four square miles in the US (“about the size of the National Mall in Washington”, a press release explains), tracking the nitrogen dioxide levels within that area over a six-hour time window. Up until this point, most Earth-monitoring satellites have captured data once per day. Tempo’s round-the-clock tracking will allow us to see how air quality changes over a 24-hour period, which means more effective air quality warnings.

GalleryNitrogen dioxide levels over Southern California at 12:14 and 4:24 p.m. on August 2, as measured by Tempo (Copyright © Kel Elkins, Trent Schindler and Cindy Starr/Nasa's Scientific Visualization Studio)

“If this summer’s wildfires in Canada are any indication, it’s clear that pollution emitted in one place can impact communities thousands of miles away, especially communities that are more susceptible to the negative effects of poor air quality,” says Raid M. Suleiman, an astrophysicist at SAO and Centre for Astrophysics (CfA).

Tempo works through an advanced spectrometer that detects pollution normally hidden within reflected sunlight.

All that’s left to see is if this data can help inspire a public-facing creative project, like Giorgia Lupi’s fantastic Plastic Air or Seeing CO2.

GalleryNitrogen dioxide levels over the DC/Philadelphia/New York region at 12:14 and 4:24 p.m. on 2 August, as measured by Tempo (Copyright © Kel Elkins, Trent Schindler and Cindy Starr/ Nasa's Scientific Visualization Studio)

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Nitrogen dioxide levels over Southern California at 12:14 and 4:24 p.m. on August 2, as measured by Tempo (Copyright © Kel Elkins, Trent Schindler and Cindy Starr/Nasa's Scientific Visualization Studio)

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About the Author

Liz Gorny

Liz (she/they) joined It’s Nice That as news writer in December 2021. After graduating from the University of Bristol, they worked freelance, writing for independent publications such as Little White Lies, Indie magazine and design studio Evermade.

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