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NASA Begins Air Quality Study Flights Over Md./D.C.

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(Credit: courtesy of NASA)

(Credit: courtesy of NASA)

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Alex DeMetrick has been a general assignment reporter with WJZ...
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HAVRE DE GRACE, Md. (WJZ)—Using a large plane to fly low over Maryland, NASA has begun a first-of-its-kind study of air quality.

Alex DeMetrick reports the first flight took wing Friday.

Maybe you saw it. Flying at only 1,000 feet, a plane converted by NASA scientists into a flying laboratory, is  studying air quality between Washington, D.C. and Havre de Grace.

NASA already uses satellites to track pollution. They’re good at seeing what’s happening really high up, but “unfortunately those satellites are not really good enough to diagnose what’s at surface levels versus what’s higher in the atmosphere,” said Jim Crawford, NASA researcher.

And for people, the action is closer to the ground.

Pollution levels generated by cars, coal-burning power plants, even lawn mowers, is at best a guess for satellites.

Ground stations do get exact reads but only over a small area.

NASA is looking for samples between sidewalks and satellites.

“We’ll spiral up to try to get a complete spiral of the atmosphere up to 10,000 feet,” said Alan Fried, NASA researcher.

Day-long flights corkscrew up and down over the same Maryland Terrain, flying lowest over Interstates 95 and 295. For the pilot, it means hours of tricky maneuvering.

“Looking out for other air traffic, listening to the radio, listen to what air traffic control wants us to do, and there’s a lot of towers and obstacles to look for,” said Mike Singer, NASA pilot.

Our area was chosen for this study because a lot of what we breathe drifts in from other states.

“Particularly for Maryland, the Ohio River Valley can send in large amounts of pollution at altitude above the area. A satellite is unable to currently distinguish whether that pollution is over your head or down where you’re breathing,” Crawford said.

In-flight data collected by the plane’s instruments may help fill in the blanks by allowing researchers to fine tune future satellite readings.

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