NASA flies low over South Korea to measure polluted air

NASA measuring pollutants in South Korea
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    NASA measuring pollutants in South Korea

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Story highlights

  • The DC-8 is fitted with hi-tech machinery to measure pollutants in the air
  • It flew around South Korean airspace for eight hours taking samples for analysis

(CNN)"Ready for take-off, right here we go." Two former U.S. Air Force pilots take off from Osan Air base in South Korea. But this is no military sortie, this is a very different kind of battle.

Working with NASA, they are piloting a flying laboratory, a modified DC-8 packed with millions of dollars worth of highly sensitive instruments to register air pollution, determine where those pollutants originate from and assess how air pollution can be more accurately measured from space.
    This is no ordinary airplane. Most of the windows have air tight probes or filters sticking out of them, instruments adorn the top and bottom of the plane's body and inside, most seats have been replaced by state of the art machinery designed to pick up gases from ground level up to tens of thousands of feet.
    The plane is equipped with 25 state-of-the-art instruments to monitor air pollution.
    Nicola Blake works at the University of California and is one of 34 scientists on board that NASA has brought together. She is collecting air samples to be shipped back to her lab where she will test for different gases.
    "We need to understand, we need to know what's going on," she says. "It's great to look at things with satellites and a lot of them are new and they're reporting great data, but unless you actually physically measure the atmosphere in situ, you're very limited."
    Nicola Blake

    Polluted air in South Korea

    South Korea is a perfect venue for this kind of mission, ranking 173 out of 180 countries for air pollution in a recent study by Yale University. The same study found half of the world's population is breathing in dirty air, more than 3.5 billion people living in nations with unsafe air quality.
    These scientists have eight hours in the air today, flying the length and breadth of the country, over cities, mountains and seas. Looking out of the window you see dramatic views of Seoul while flying just 300 feet high -- flying this low over a metropolis of 10 million people is rare and bumpy. But instrumental in finding out exactly where certain air pollution is coming from.
    Alan Fried has worked in his field for 35 years, measuring formaldehyde and ethanol in the atmosphere. "We fly over certain sites and we can tell when we're immediately over those areas, there's high pollution, so this is a really sensitive instrument."

    Where is it coming from?

    The South Korean government has long argue hat much of the pollution in this country likely comes from China. Certainly so-called yellow dust is known to be blown in from the deserts of Mongolia and Northern China, bringing with it some toxic particles picked up along the way, But fine dust particles, very detrimental to health, may originate far closer to home according to a number of scientists on board.
    Jack Dib is collecting filter samples and is expecting much of the pollution to be local. "We think a lot of it is going to be a mixture of pollution from the power plants and the cities with an awful lot of stuff coming from the forest, natural biogenics so we're looking to see if that's what's really happening."
    South Korea is the first foreign country to enter into this kind of mission with NASA. And South Korean scientists are on board working alongside the Americans, suggesting the government is at least acknowledging pollution here is a problem and is looking for answers.