Take 78 percent nitrogen, 21 percent oxygen, 0.9 percent argon, 0.03 percent carbon dioxide – that’s 99.93 percent of the atmosphere. But the trace gases and airborne particles that make up that last approximately 0.07 percent are what NASA’s Atmospheric Tomography (ATom) mission is interested in.
ATom is a chemistry mission to study the movement and chemical processes that affect the top three greenhouse agents after carbon dioxide – methane, tropospheric ozone, and black carbon. In addition, it’s the first time scientists are going to do a comprehensive survey of over 200 gases and aerosol particles all over the world. And to do that a team of university and NASA scientists are going on a 26-day journey from pole to pole and back again.
Over the next few weeks a handful of ATom scientists will be blogging about their around-the-world journey on NASA’s DC-8 flying laboratory – a plane the size of a midsize commercial airliner stuffed with 22 scientific instruments for sampling the air. They’ll collect data that not only shows where these hundreds of trace gases are hanging out and where they’re going, but also how they interact with each other – creating new compounds or destroying others, like methane, and effectively removing them from the atmosphere. Taken together, the data will give the science community a better understanding of how these gases, many of which are pollutants, affect global climate change.
The majority of the air sampled will be over the Pacific and Atlantic oceans. This summer’s trip will be the first of four deployments, one in each season over the next three years.