Health & Science

NASA Planes Will Fly Houston Skies On Pollution-Data Mission

NASA is launching two research airplanes tomorrow from Ellington Field. The planes will spend a month flying over the Houston region and measuring air pollution to fill in critical data gaps.


To embed this piece of audio in your site, please use this code:

<iframe src="" style="height: 115px; width: 100%;"></iframe>

A four-engine turboprop parked at Ellington Field is stocked with racks of instruments and bristling with probes.

The airplane is one of two in the NASA project, known as DISCOVER-AQ.

Markus Müller will be on board. He’s an Austrian scientist who tracks toxins like benzene.

He says the plane will fly up and down in dizzying spirals, to collect data over 14,000 vertical feet.

“You need medication to do it…You get airsick, yeah, especially if you’re not used to it and you don’t medication against it. It’s really a serious issue.”

Typically, pollution is measured at ground level — with instruments placed on top of buildings, or sometimes in vehicles that drive along the Ship Channel.

 NASA also can track air quality from space, with orbiting satellites.

But that leaves a big gap in between — the atmosphere, a place where wind and weather move pollution around, and where chemicals mix together and disperse.

NASA scientist James Crawford
NASA scientist James Crawford points to a pollution sensor on the wing of a P-3 turboprop, a research plane launching from Ellington Field for a month-long series of flights over Houston.

Jim Crawford is an atmospheric chemist with NASA.

He says the two airplanes will fly over eight sites between Galveston and Conroe.

“We can visit each of these sites three times a day: in the morning, when emissions are at their peak, in mid-day when things are beginning to evolve, and then the late afternoon when sunlight, humidity and the chemistry have resulted in that poor air quality condition which tends to happen late in the day.”

Barry Lefer studies air quality and climate at the University of Houston.

He says the flights will reveal much more about pollution than measurements taken on the ground below.

“We’ll be able to look at individual sources, there’s flights over the Ship Channel, there’s flights downwind, there’s flights over near power plants. So we can get a better idea of what is the contribution of those various sources to the Houston air quality problem.”

NASA has plans to launch a new satellite in 2019 that will focus on air pollution over North America.

Crawford says data from the current project will help scientists program that satellite, so when it’s in orbit it knows what to look for.

“A satellite doesn’t directly measure the atmosphere; it’s looking at the light reflected back to it and making interpretations, and those interpretations need to be well informed. If you don’t have an idea of what the atmospheric structure looks like underneath the satellite, you can end up deriving the wrong answer.”

The same set of flights have already taken place over the Washington, D.C. area and in California.

After Houston, the airplanes will head to Colorado to repeat the process. 

Austrian physicist Markus Müller
Austrian physicist Markus Müller checks his instrument onboard the NASA plane. He tracks and measures benzene and other airborne toxics in the atmospheric column.

Subscribe to Today in Houston

Fill out the form below to subscribe our new daily editorial newsletter from the HPM Newsroom.

* required