by Ellen Gray / CHRISTCHURCH, NEW ZEALAND /
Good communication is key to keeping the 44 scientists and aircrew happy on NASA’s DC-8 aircraft. The team is in close quarters for a month-long journey around the world to survey the atmosphere on NASA’s Atmospheric Tomography, or ATom, mission. On the plane they keep in touch with each other via headset and with scientists supporting the mission back home via satellite chat room.
But on Feb. 6, on the other side of the International Date Line (Feb. 5 in the United States), as the team made their transit from Nadi, Fiji, to Christchurch, New Zealand, one topic was forbidden—updates on the Super Bowl.
Róisín Commane, an atmospheric scientist and Patriots fan at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, did a rough poll. Half the people on the plane followed football, and they were nearly evenly split between Patriots and Falcons fans. And all of them wanted to see the game unspoiled.
On the ground in Christchurch, Quincy Allison, the logistics coordinator with NASA’s Earth Science Project Office out of Ames Research Center, had already arranged with hotel staff to record the game and play it in a conference room after the ATom team got in that evening.
Meanwhile, during their Super Bowl news blackout, the team continued to make measurements to better understand our atmosphere. The ATom mission is the most comprehensive survey of the atmosphere to date, with 22 science instruments measuring more than 200 gases and air particles and an itinerary that has it tracing from the North Pole down the Pacific Ocean to Christchurch, then cutting across to the southern tip of Chile, then traveling back up the center of the Atlantic to Greenland and the Arctic. Along the way they’re island hopping between flights, with only a day or two on the ground before moving on. Christchurch, at about halfway, is their longest stopover at three days and also their major resupply point.
Gathering data to help understand the atmospheric chemistry that drives air quality around the globe is worth the grueling pace for Commane, who likened the atmosphere to a different kind of bowl.
“It’s like a mixing bowl,” she said. The air over the oceans is theoretically clean, but winds, especially in the Northern Hemisphere, carry pollution from industry or fires from continent to continent. Looking at some of their data in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, she said they saw signs of fires. “I said, ‘Where did this come from?’” she recalled. The weather and wind models said Africa, where agricultural fires are common in the summer and fall. “That’s on the opposite side of the world.”
Air doesn’t stay in one place, and as it travels, the hundreds of different gases and particles that make up the air encounter new ones generated in different areas, and they chemically react with each other. Some of the pollutants are scrubbed out of the atmosphere this way, disappearing or transformed into new gases. These are the processes that the ATom science team is interested in learning more about, in addition to just knowing how much pollution is really out there over the ocean.
A lack of measurements gives people a false sense that everything is okay, said Commane. “We think we don’t need to do better,” she said. Poor air quality is something she doesn’t want anyone to live with, whether it’s generated at home or is a wind-driven import. “You might not always be able to see it, but when you’re in it you can feel it. You can taste it.”