NASA mission launched to monitor dust in Earth’s atmosphere

A new NASA mission will monitor dust from orbit to quantify its effect on Earth’s climate.

Dubbed the EMIT (Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation) mission, the experiment is to be launched Thursday, July 14 for a mission to the International Space Station. It will ascend to orbit aboard SpaceX Commercial Resupply Mission 25 (CRS-25) inside the Dragon cargo spacecraft.

The mission aims to know the composition of the minerals that make up the dust suspended in the air. Mineral dust, also known as desert dust, “can influence the weather, accelerate snowmelt, and fertilize plants on land and in the ocean,” said NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL). in a press release. (opens in a new tab)in May.

Related: 10 devastating signs of climate change that satellites can see from space

Dust can also travel incredibly long distances in the Earth’s atmosphere. “Particles from North Africa can travel thousands of miles around the globe, causing phytoplankton blooms, seeding Amazon rainforests with nutrients and blanketing some US cities with sand while absorbing and scattering sunlight,” noted JPL officials.

Researchers have spent decades mapping dust pathways to better inform climate change models, but what’s missing is an understanding of particle composition, said EMIT deputy principal researcher Natalie Mahowald. and Earth System Scientist at Cornell University in New York. statement.

Concretely, EMIT aims to find out whether dust is heating or cooling the planet and how this is changing over time, which will require more information on the composition of dust.

A windswept cloud of dust over the Sahara Desert drifting across the Atlantic Ocean. (Image credit: Copernicus)

Dust-producing desert regions tend to be undersampled in the data because most of the existing information comes from 5,000 sites in more cultivable regions, where business and agricultural researchers seek information on crop growth.

“Normally in climate models we model dust as yellow – the average color of all types of dust – but if you’ve ever been to a desert region you’ll know that sand isn’t one color. “, said Mahowald. “So this assumption that it’s uniform across the world doesn’t reflect what’s happening in reality.”

EMIT, which will be mounted on the ISS, aims to map sources of mineral dust at an altitude of 250 miles (400 kilometers). The instrument will focus on analyzing the color and particle composition of 10 varieties of dust, in particular dark red iron oxide dust associated with strong atmospheric heating.

“Knowing what types of dust prevail at the surface in each region will provide new insights into the composition of particles lifted and transported through the air. With this information, climatologists can refine their understanding of the regional and global climate effects of dust. mineral,” JPL wrote the officials.

The instrument uses a spectrometer that breaks down sunlight reflected from the Earth into distinct colors showing the elemental composition of dust. It will be able to see strips of land about 80 km wide and continuously monitor these regions for any changes for the duration of the mission.

With the EMIT data, JPL Principal Investigator Robert Green said, “We’ll be well on our way to mapping dust source regions of the world and understanding how dust is heating and cooling the planet, and how that might change in the future.” future climate scenarios. “

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace (opens in a new tab). Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom (opens in a new tab) or facebook.

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