Low-flying plane to test air quality in Harford, Cecil

It's a bird! It's a plane! Yes, it's definitely a plane.

Two NASA research airplanes are expected to begin flights this week over the Baltimore-Washington region into Harford and Cecil counties and northeastern Maryland with one of the planes dipping as low as 1,000 feet above the ground.

"If you see airplanes flying 1,000 feet over the highway, it might make you a little nervous, if you don't know what they're doing," Michael Finneran, a spokesman for the mission and public affairs specialist with Langley Research Center in Hampton, Va., said Tuesday.

The flights are part of a mission designed to enhance the ability of satellites to measure ground-level air quality while in space.

While preliminary flights were first scheduled to begin as early as Monday, the NASA web site dedicated to the mission indicates the flights will begin no earlier than today (Wednesday). The official test flights will begin as early as July 1 and as many as 14 flights are expected to take place through the end of July.

The flights could last as long as eight hours and will take place between 6 a.m. and 8 p.m.

The mission, called DISCOVER-AQ, which stands for "Deriving Information on Surface Conditions from Column and Vertically Resolved Observations Relevant to Air Quality," involves two planes.

The large plane, a 117-foot turboprop carrying nine instruments, will sample an area from Beltsville north, following major roadways including I-95. At several points, the plane will fly low-altitude spirals from 1,000 to 15,000 feet over ground stations.

Two of these points are in Harford County, one in Aldino and another in Edgewood. The plane will also follow I-95 into Cecil County at about 1,000 feet.

This plane will follow major roadway traffic corridors and pass over six ground measurement sites operated by the Maryland Department of the Environment.

A second plane, a two engine plane carrying two instruments, will travel as high as 26,000 feet. The second plane will look down at the earth's surface as a satellite would and measure pollution at those heights.

"They're going to be working together to provide, really, a lot of good data," Finneran said.

The selection of the area for testing was no accident, according to Finneran.

"It's an excellent place to take that kind of data because there is just a lot of air pollution," Finneran said.

He said the Baltimore-Washington region is one of the top 20 most air-polluted regions in the country.

At this point, NASA's main concern is making sure those in the area know what to expect.

NASA has reached out to local governments in the flight path to make sure the area is as aware as possible of the tests.

"So people are as aware of this as we can make them," Finneran said.

Maryland Emergency Management Agency contacted Harford County to alert them to the coming science flights and the county notified county employees.

This is the first of several similar tests that are expected to take place across the country in urban areas including Houston, Texas.

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