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See a NASA plane flying around Hampton Roads? Here’s why.

A research flight around the Baltimore area in June.
Photo courtesy of NASA
A research flight around the Baltimore area in June.

Research aircraft are gathering data to map air pollution from sources like power plants, landfills and even wetlands.

If you see low-flying aircraft around Hampton Roads early next week, don’t fret. It’s likely part of a nationwide effort to learn more about air pollution.

NASA is flying over several parts of the country, including Richmond and southeastern Virginia, to measure the amount of pollutants and greenhouse gases in the air.

“The goal is to understand emissions of pollutants,” said Glenn Wolfe, a research scientist based at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland. “Hopefully, by shining a light on those emissions, we can help motivate people to change.”

The agency is currently running two separate but similar missions.

The first, called ALEGROS — Associating Local Emissions of Gases with Regional Observations from Satellites — started recently and focuses on measuring pollutants around Baltimore and Philadelphia.

The second, which includes Virginia, is part of the Student Airborne Research Program. It involves student interns with NASA — rising college seniors from disciplines like chemistry, engineering and ecology.

Student interns and researchers will board a small King Air B200 plane leaving from Wallops Flight Facility on the Eastern Shore, Wolfe said.

The planned flight path in Hampton Roads June 24-26.
Courtesy of NASA
The planned flight path in Hampton Roads June 24-26.

Monday through Wednesday, the group will run three, two-hour flights down to Hampton Roads each day, hovering around 1,000 feet from the ground. The path includes the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, Great Dismal Swamp National Wildlife Refuge and just east of downtown Norfolk.

The team uses tube-like instruments called air probes that stick out of the bottom of the plane to measure different sets of molecules in the air, Wolfe said.

They’re largely interested in planet-warming greenhouse gases like methane and carbon dioxide.

Wolfe said the goal is to gather field data to help validate modeling and satellite data that NASA already collects.

An instrument on the research plane used to measure air pollution.
Photo courtesy of NASA
An instrument on the research plane used to measure air pollution.

Last year, the agency launched a satellite called TEMPO meant to hourly measure air pollution across North America, down to neighborhood scales.

That yields more information than scientists have ever had before – but flights like the ones in Hampton Roads will ensure the satellite adequately reflects what’s happening on the ground.

“Those models are what are used to set air quality policy,” Wolfe said. “So we’ll give this data to (authorities) and they’ll be able to test their models, hopefully determine what’s wrong with them and make them better.”

The research flights are even able to measure things like how much a tree on the ground is helping absorb carbon.

Wolfe said the team tries to target big sources of greenhouse gas emissions including landfills, power plants and even wetlands, which emit methane from decomposing organic material.

They plan to spiral the plane up and down in spots where there are sensors on the ground, to compare data from each.

The group may also do a purposeful “missed approach” by the Norfolk airport, or a low-level flyby over the runway to collect surface samples.

All data from the mission will become public within six months.

Katherine is WHRO’s climate and environment reporter. She came to WHRO from the Virginian-Pilot in 2022. Katherine is a California native who now lives in Norfolk and welcomes book recommendations, fun science facts and of course interesting environmental news.

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