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NASA overflights postponed

NASA's plans to send low-flying aircraft over the Baltimore-Washington area to measure air pollution levels have been postponed to allow more time to increase public awareness of the flights.

The first test flights of the Discover-AQ campaign were to have begun Monday morning, with a four-engine turboprop aircraft making passes over portions of I-95, the Baltimore Beltway and the Baltimore-Washington Parkway. Science flights are still set to begin July 1 and will continue through the month.

Parts of the day-long flights will be just 1,000 feet above the ground. And as they begin those low-level segments, pilots will be spiraling their Orion P3 airplane toward the ground from higher altitudes. That raised some concern that people on the ground, including motorists, might be startled or worried by the unusual maneuvers.

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Rani Gran, a spokeswoman for the NASA Goddard Spaceflight Center in Greenbelt, said NASA officials decided they "needed to create more awareness with the public."

So, NASA has invited local news media to BWI-Marshall Airport Tuesday for a "plane and pilot availability." That will yield more coverage of the flights on the evening news, and the added public awareness the space agency is seeking.

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The first test flights are now scheduled for Wednesday or Thursday, depending on the weather, which for now looks quite sunny.

The airborne air pollution measurements are part of Discover-AQ. It's an effort by NASA to improve the reliability of its satellite-based air quality monitoring, which has difficulty detecting pollutants near the ground.

By studying the movement of air pollutants on the surface and at various altitudes - and as it evolves during the day - NASA expects to be able to improve the air quality models used to process satellite data. That should improve air quality forecasts, and will also be used to inform the design of the next generation of satellites.

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