NASA is launching a prototype instrument that could make it easier to monitor volcanic activity and air quality.


Perched aboard a CubeSat about 300 miles (480 kilometers) above Earth’s surface, the “Nanosat Atmospheric Chemistry Hyperspectral Observation System,” or NACHOS, will use a compact hyperspectral imager to locate sources of trace gases in areas as small as 0.15 square miles (0.4 square kilometers) – about the size of the Mall of America in Minnesota. NACHOS is part of Northrop Grumman’s 17th resupply mission to the International Space Station from NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility on Wallops Island, Virginia.

If successful, NACHOS will be the smallest, highest resolution space-based instrument dedicated to monitoring atmospheric trace gases like sulfur dioxide (SO2) and nitrogen dioxide, paving the way for future Earth-observing systems that will not only help predict volcanic eruptions, but also monitor air quality around specific cities, neighborhoods, and even individual power plants.

“A dormant volcano just waking up may emit SO2 before there is any detectable seismic activity. That gives us a chance to identify a potentially erupting volcano before it actually blows,” said Steve Love, a researcher and task lead with the Space and Remote Sensing Group at the Department of Energy’s Los Alamos National Laboratory (LANL).

Atmospheric trace gases from natural and human-made sources provide scientists with unique insights into a wide variety of Earth systems. For example, nitrogen dioxide, often produced by burning fossil fuels, negatively impacts human health and can serve as a tracer for carbon dioxide (a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change) that results from human activity.

“When we recognize that these gases are present and can localize their sources on a sub-kilometer scale, we have the opportunity to take action and minimize negative health outcomes,” said Love.

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