Lab-in-a-Plane Making Four Laps Around the Globe

Feb 7, 2017

A DC8 packed with atmospheric sensors and samplers is making four laps around the globe. Britt Stephens is among the scientists on the current leg.
Credit Craig LeMoult / WGBH

One of the first science policy ideas put out by Trump transition team back in November was a proposal to move all earth science out from under the umbrella of NASA and perhaps give it to another agency, like the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. That transfer hasn’t come to pass – at least not yet – and earth science is still carrying on. In fact, right now, scientists from Harvard University, the National Center for Atmospheric Research and – yes – NASA and NOAA are flying around the world trying to get a better handle on what’s going on in our atmosphere.

The project is called the Atmospheric Tomography Mission (the acronym AToM is pronounced AY-tom, since it's not actually an atomic study). Basically, it's a DC8, crammed full of samplers and sensors, constantly measuring things like methane, carbon dioxide, and pollutants, as the plane flies around the globe, zig-zagging up and down between 500 ft and 30-40,000 feet.

"As we're flying up and down through the atmosphere, we get a very good picture of what the composition - as in how much of any given gas there is at different levels of the atmosphere," explains Harvard University scientist Roisin Commane. "Most models haven't had the data to be able to test any of their hypotheses on that."

This certainly isn't the first time NASA has sent up a plane to study atmospheric chemistry, but AToM is providing unprecedented coverage of remote areas of the globe, at a variety of altitudes, during all four seasons. The goal is to better understand how pollution moves around, and how different components of the atmosphere interact.

It's intense work. One lap of the globe takes a month of long days in tight quarters. Researchers say that during one expedition, they slept in twelve time zones in eleven countries - because they happened to be in one country when it had a daylight savings change overnight. The project's lead investigator, Steve Wofsy of Harvard University, said he had vertigo for a month after last August's trip.

The future of this kind of research is uncertain right now, and many NASA scientists are hesitant to talk politics. And Wofsy takes the long view when it comes to funding and government support.

"Funding goes up and down. Priorities of the administration or of NASA go up and down," he said. "The problems that we're talking about - the scientific problems and their feedback on society - are here to stay. So, this research will continue for a very, very long time. Whether or not it has a short-term zig or zag is not something that's under my control."