A spacecraft to measure nitrogen dioxide pollution in the atmosphere

Astrophysics and Astronomy; Mechanical Engineering; Environmental Sciences; Aerospace Engineering

The project will result in the development a scientific instrument and spacecraft concept to measure atmospheric nitrogen dioxide. Such measurements will aid our understanding of a common pollutant.

Research Interests
  • instrumentation
  • Spacecraft
  • Air pollution
  • Spectroscopy

More than 95% of the world’s population lives in areas where air pollution exceeds standards designated to protect human health. Nitrogen dioxide (NO2) is an atmospheric pollutant that is found in high concentrations in cities around the world. It is generated through processes including the combustion of fuel in air and is emitted from cars, transport vehicles and power plants. NO2 can also lead to the formation of atmospheric haze, smog and acid rain. Because NO2 is chemically reactive, it varies greatly in time and space within the atmosphere. However, this variability cannot be captured by available monitoring approaches. It is proposed to build a spacecraft that will measure NO2 in the air within cities across the Unites States and internationally. These measurements will resolve spatial gradients at sub-kilometer scales, representing an order of magnitude higher spatial resolution than current space-based instruments. The data will be used to develop our understanding of the emission, chemistry and transport of NO2 in the atmosphere and to improve interpretation of current satellite NO2 observations. To obtain the data, a scientific  instrument (a near infra-red slit spectrograph) and a spacecraft bus will be built and launched into space in order to collect measurements from Low Earth Orbit.

Desired outcomes

The goal of this 3 Cavaliers project is to develop further the concept of the scientific instrument and spacecraft to improve the probability of future funding. In particular, it is proposed to build prototype components of the spectrograph in order to increase its technology readiness level. If successful, the project will result in the establishment of new multidisciplinary research for the University of Virginia that will form a nucleus for collaboration with external partners and engagement with federal sponsors such as the National Science Foundation and NASA.