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Pinpointing pollution from the skies

Pioneering new technology could monitor levels of harmful Nitrogen Dioxide (NO2) from space, allowing countries to pinpoint pollution hotspots and improve air quality in cities all over the world.

It all began with an innovative highly compact spectrometer designed by SSTL, which was adapted by The University of Leicester's Earth Observation Science Group to analyse the absorption of blue visible light by NO2 gas, and thereby measure its concentration in air. Working in partnership with SSTL under funding from the Centre for Earth Observation Instrumentation (CEOI), the University team built and tested a very compact and cost effective new prototype instrument called CompAQS in 2008, based on the SSTL design, for measuring concentrations of common air pollutants.

This instrument has since been successfully harnessed in the University’s Cityscan building-mounted pollution monitoring system, and this year it was taken to the skies as the Airborne Air Quality Mapper (AAQM) to map NO2 concentrations over Leicester. It means that for the first time in the UK entire cities can be mapped from the air, providing wider ranging and more efficient air quality monitoring than the traditional method of fixed sensors at known hotspots. 

NO2 slant columns measured over Leicester on 28th February 2013 by the Airborne Air Quality Mapper.

A spaceborne adaptation of this instrument could realistically analyse NO2 concentrations on an urban scale with 1-2 km granularity, a much increased resolution from the 40km ground sampling that enabled the SCIAMACHY (Scanning Imaging Spectrometer for Atmospheric Chartography) instrument on board the retired Envisat satellite or even the 7 x 7km ground pixel size that will be achieved by the TROPOMI instrument onboard the Sentinel 5 Precursor spacecraft when it launches in 2015.  The innovative and compact optical design would provide highly cost effective pollution measurements from a small satellite in low Earth orbit, or as a secondary payload on a larger satellite. Its high resolution data could identify city boroughs of concern, or provide information to manage traffic to curb pollution hotspots on busy motorways.  A single satellite would have global reach, and with more satellites regular pollution monitoring could be possible.


NO2 pollution is largely caused by traffic and industrial emissions in urban areas and is linked with worsening respiratory and heart conditions. It is also a contributor to acid rain and the European Commission is demanding action to reduce levels, and fast. CompAQS focuses on NO2 measurements, which are particularly valuable as a tracer of emissions from fossil fuel combustion processes. A full CompAQS version covering the ultra-violet and visible spectrum could offer vital measurements of particulates and other short-lived air quality indicators such as Formaldehyde (HCHO) and Glyoxal (CHOCHO) and ground-level Ozone. 

Further iterations of the AAQM will increase its resolution and range, potentially allowing illegal and excessive polluters to be identified and prosecuted.  With major pressure on governments around the world to cut urban pollution, the impact of policy initiatives anywhere on Earth could be monitored effectively from space in a rapid and timely manner.





17 September 20130 Comments1 Comment

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