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

In an ambitious effort to enhance the models that aid in the prediction and combat of air pollution, NASA has begun a series of long-duration flights in Asia using the largest flying laboratory in the world.

Since air pollution is a major cause of millions of deaths annually, it is possible to improve public warning systems by better identifying the sources and behaviors of air pollution.

Beginning this week in the Philippines, the US agency’s DC-8 is swooping up air particles for analysis for as long as eight hours at a stretch, sometimes as low as 15 meters (50 feet) above the ground.

“We can provide direct measurements of how much pollution is coming from different sources. And that’s one of the primary inputs to the air quality forecasting models,” NASA’s Barry Lefer told reporters Thursday at Clark International Airport, around 80 km (50 miles) north of Manila.

Air quality forecasting is dependent on data from satellites and ground sensors, but experts say that neither technology is fully capable of determining the dispersion of pollutants in the atmosphere.

Aircraft readings can bridge that gap, enhance satellite data interpretation, and provide more precise models.

Combining the air, space and ground readings is necessary for policies “regarding public health, regarding industrial compliance, regarding…ecosystem preservation and conservation”, said Maria Antonia Loyzaga, secretary of the Philippines Department of Environment and Natural Resources.

Packed with dozens of highly sensitive instruments, the NASA lab has flown twice so far this week in a figure-eight pattern over some of the most densely populated areas of the Philippines, including the capital region, according to the tracking site FlightAware.

Alongside it is a smaller NASA Gulfstream jet equipped with instrumentation capable of producing three-dimensional air pollution maps.

The aircraft will carry out research flights over Malaysia, Thailand, and South Korea in the upcoming weeks.

After a year, the study’s findings will be made public, according to NASA program officials.

The US agency and countries in an area with some of the worst rates of air pollution-related deaths worldwide are collaborating on a project called ASIA-AQ.

Manila Observatory scientist Maria Cambaliza told reporters Thursday that about a third of global air pollution-linked deaths are recorded in Asia.

In the Philippines, she added, there are 100 such deaths per 100,000 people.

Mridha Shihab Mahmud is a writer, content editor and photojournalist. He works as a staff reporter at News Hour. He is also involved in humanitarian works through a trust called Safety Assistance For Emergencies (SAFE). Mridha also works as film director. His passion is photography. He is the chief respondent person in Mymensingh Film & Photography Society. Besides professional attachment, he loves graphics designing, painting, digital art and social networking.
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