NASA’s ATom Mission Examines the Impact of Human-Produced Air Pollution

NASA’s Atmospheric Tomography Mission, known as ATom, will examine the impact of human-produced air pollution on greenhouse gases and chemically reactive gases in the atmosphere. Reductions of atmospheric concentrations of methane (CH4), tropospheric ozone (O3) and black carbon (BC) aerosols are effective ways to slow global warming and to improve air quality. Airborne instruments will study how atmospheric chemistry is transformed by many different air pollutants and at the impact on CH4 and O3. Alleviating these short-lived climate forcers is a primary part of current international policy discussions.

As the world’s first space nation, Asgardia is working toward creating a demilitarized and free scientific base of knowledge in space, which could be furthered along by missions like ATom.

ATom deploys an extensive gas and aerosol payload on the NASA DC-8 aircraft for systematic, global-scale sampling of the atmosphere, profiling continuously from 0.2 to 12 km altitude. Flights will take place in each of 4 the seasons over the course of 4-years. They will begin from the Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California, where they will fly north to the western Arctic, then south to the South Pacific, then east to the Atlantic, north to Greenland, and finally return to California across central North America.

ATom initiates a single, contiguous global-scale data set. This comprehensive dataset will be employed to improve the representation of chemically reactive gases and short-lived climate forcers in global models of atmospheric chemistry and climate. Profiles of the reactive gases will also offer crucial information for validation of satellite data, especially in remote areas where in situ data is scarce.

ATom’s tomographic, large-scale sampling combined with parcel-by-parcel quantification of photochemical tendencies offers a significant response to the 2011 NASA Strategic Plan to Advance Earth System Science: meeting the challenges of climate and environmental change on a global scale.

ATom improves predictions of human-caused and natural changes in climate forcing and air quality from around the world. The mission makes global-scale measurements of the chemistry of the atmosphere using the NASA DC-8 aircraft. Flights span the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, nearly pole-to-pole, in continuous profiling mode, covering remote regions that might have been seen as pristine 20 years ago but currently receive long-range inputs of pollution from growing industrial economies.

The payload has 15 proven tools to help with in situ measurements of reactive and long-lived gases, diagnostic chemical tracers, and aerosol size, number, and composition, plus spectrally resolved solar radiation and meteorological parameters.

ATom measures over 100 distinct chemicals, aerosol, radiative, and physical parameters. Fast instrument sampling rates offer spatially resolved, simultaneous, and contiguous observational data, giving us an almost complete chemical description of each air parcel.

Merging distributions of aerosols and reactive gases with long-lived GHGs and ODSs allows for the disentangling of the processes that regulate atmospheric chemistry: emissions, transport, cloud processes, and chemical transformations. ATom studies measurements using customized modelling instruments to figure out daily averaged chemical rates for vital atmospheric processes and to critically evaluate Chemistry-Climate Models (CCMs). ATom also differentiates between hypotheses for the formation and growth of aerosols over the remote oceans.

ATom is closely linked to satellites measuring atmospheric chemical composition: (i) ATom offers unique information for validation and algorithm development for OCO-2, GOME-2, TROPOMI, GOSAT, in addition to those planned for geostationary orbit (TEMPO), and the TCCON network. (ii) ATom uses satellite data to extend its airborne in-situ observations on a global scale. (iii) ATom directly engages CCM groups and delivers a single, large-scale, contiguous in-situ data set for model evaluation and improvement.

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