ASIA-AQ, AEROMMA, FIREX. These are just some of the projects that Glenn Wolfe, a research scientist at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, has had a hand in over the years. The missions’ official names are a mouthful, so they’re often referenced only by acronym. His latest mission is ALEGROS.

Part of his work on ALEGROS — or associating local emissions of gases with regional observations from satellites — will be to plot where emissions and air pollution in Baltimore tend to be most concentrated.

Beginning Sunday, Wolfe and his team will fly a small aircraft over Baltimore, along with a few other East Coast cities, for about two weeks to gather data.

“NASA doesn’t just do stuff from space,” Wolfe said, adding that the flights will help connect the dots between information gathered by satellite and “what’s actually happening in the air at nose level.”

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This is a relatively small mission for NASA, Wolfe explained. But the findings will steer work for the U.S. Greenhouse Gas Center, a new joint collaborative among federal agencies that’s gathering and consolidating data on greenhouse gases to be used in research and policy decisions, according to its site.

The B200, the plane that will be used for NASA’s ALEGROS mission, lands at Martin State Airport on June 16, 2024. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

Part of the larger focus is understanding emissions in densely-populated urban areas where more people are exposed to that poor air quality, Wolfe said. “We want to map all that out, so that we can have more targeted policy decisions.”

Air pollution has been linked to numerous health concerns, including respiratory issues and cardiovascular disease, according to the American Lung Association. Elevated concentrations of GHGs, including methane and carbon dioxide, are also warming the planet. The changes are “occurring at a pace and in a way that threatens human health, society, and the natural environment, according to the U.S. Greenhouse Gas Center.

In Baltimore, ozone and particulate matter in the air are already of top concern, Wolfe said. While ALEGROS will focus on mapping emissions across the city, it may also offer insight into how the Key Bridge collapse — which sent debris and other possible pollutants into the air — has impacted air quality.

“There are certainly sort of hotspots in the city where the emissions tend to be a little more concentrated, but we’ll spend time trying to validate that data and make it more useful to people who want to use it for policy decisions and use it to understand things like environmental justice,” Wolfe said.

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The ALEGROS mission will fly low over Baltimore — just 1,000 feet above ground level. The team will also use NASA’s Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution satellite, which launched in April 2023, to measure air quality at very high spatial resolution every hour of the day.

“I want people to be aware of what we’re doing up there when they see this plane buzzing by their house,” Wolfe said. He added that poor weather could prevent them from flying some days, but the team is going to “get up as much as we can during the day.”

An AIMMS-20 probe is attached to the right wing of the B200. It will be used to measure wind speed and direction. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)
Instrument racks pack the inside of the B200. (Kylie Cooper/The Baltimore Banner)

A mission like ALEGROS generally takes about six to nine months to plan in order to support the scientists and pilots aboard, Wolfe said.

The work is personal for Wolfe, who grew up in Anne Arundel County and went to college at Johns Hopkins. It’s why he brought some of the tools he developed at NASA to Baltimore, he said.

“This is really important to me,” Wolfe said. “I understand the need to support the people in Baltimore.”