This Is What Air Pollution Looks Like From Space

Global carbon monoxide measured by Sentinel-5P. Image: Copernicus Sentinel data (2017), processed by SRON/ESA

The world’s most advanced air pollution monitoring satellite recently sent back its first images, illustrating the increasingly hazardous global air pollution problem and offering a preview of monitoring improvements yet to come.

Recording this data will help scientists better understand how these atmospheric processes are linked to climate and help them find effective solutions to climate change.

Sentinel-5P sees nitrogen dioxide over Europe. Image: Copernicus Sentinel data (2017), processed by KNMI/ESA

The European Space Agency launched the Sentinel-5P satellite in October, but it released the first batch of images earlier this month. The satellite is decked out with a new atmospheric sensor—dubbed Tropomi—that allows it to measure different pollutants better than any other satellite orbiting our big blue planet.

These pollutants include carbon monoxide, ozone, methane, and nitrogen dioxide, among others. All these can be harmful to human health. They are also linked with fossil fuel combustion, which is exacerbating the impacts of climate change. The satellite doesn’t measure carbon dioxide, the most infamous greenhouse gas, because it would require different tech to do so. Other satellites like NASA’s Orbiting Carbon Observatory 2, however, do capture carbon dioxide data.

The satellite can produce images of air quality within individual cities and even neighborhoods. Its resolution can measure as high as 4 miles by 2 miles with a swath width of about 1,600 miles.

Ozone from Sentinel-5P. Image: Copernicus Sentinel data (2017), processed by DLR/ESA

Already, the agency has been able to look at sophisticated maps of nitrogen dioxide over Europe, a result of traffic and industrial processes that trigger fossil fuel combustion.


Sentinel-5P has also captured the severe pollution power plants are having throughout India. Different regions of the country have been experiencing alarming rates of pollution this year, leading to traffic accidents and public outcries from elected officials. And power plants are just one contributor; this pollution also results from crop burning and vehicle emissions.

The device isn’t fully operational yet, but these images show a worthy potential. It should be fully operational in a year, at which point it will release data three hours after it’s collected, reports EOS.


“The satellite’s Tropomi instrument promised to offer images of pollutants in higher resolution than ever before, and it’s certainly living up to its promise,” said Stefan Dech, director of the German Aerospace Center’s Earth Observation Center, in a press release.



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Yessenia Funes

Senior staff writer, Earther. The one who "pulls the race card" in the name of environmental justice. You dig?

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