High-Tech Balloons Will Track Air Pollution Over North America
NORTHAMPTON, Mass. – Small helium balloons carrying sophisticated technology will soon be launched in a Smith College study to track air pollution as it travels north from Mexico City over the Gulf of Mexico and beyond.
The National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a three-year $300,000 grant to Paul Voss, Smith College assistant professor of engineering, to map the path of ozone, aerosol particles and other pollutants as they make their way out of the city of more than 18 million inhabitants.
Mexico City is one of a growing number of tropical “megacities” that have potentially far-ranging impacts on air quality and climate. Although decades of research has led to an understanding of chemical processes operating within Mexico City – and some notable improvements to air quality there – little is known about the long-range transport and dispersion of pollution, said Voss.
In March 2006, Voss will launch 10 balloons from Mexico City, each measuring about eight-by-three feet and constructed of high-performance sail fabric and other lightweight material. A solar-powered instrument, weighing about a pound, will hang from each satellite-controlled balloon and measure wind velocity, pressure, temperature and relative humidity.
These Controlled Meteorological (CMET) balloons will be flown in pairs, with one traveling at about 15,000 feet above sea level and the other moving up and down thousands of feet above and below that height.
CMET balloons are the first to achieve such a high degree of control, providing new opportunities for atmospheric research, said Voss. As the balloons collect data about the Mexico City plume, the information will simultaneously guide atmospheric research aircraft operated by the Department of Energy, National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the National Science Foundation.
Determining the movement of air pollution has grown increasingly important in recent years. In the United States, the negative public health and environmental impacts of air pollution prompted the Clean Air Act of 1990, requiring states to clean up the air or lose federal funding.
Other researchers participating in the project include Rahul Zaveri, of the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; Robert Talbot and Huiting Mao of the University of New Hampshire and six Smith College undergraduates. Zaveri, an atmospheric scientist, has developed flight-planning software that enables mission aircraft to track the balloons. The University of New Hampshire faculty members are providing miniature ozone instruments for several balloon flights and supporting the data analysis.
Voss developed CMET balloons at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, which has a patent pending on their design. Throughout the past few years, the balloons have been used in air pollution studies in the air space over New England, Canada and Texas. Additional studies are being planned for England and the Arctic.
The Mexico City project is pending approval from Mexico’s Federal Aviation Authority, SENEAM. Test flights will be conducted during the winter.
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