Low-flying planes buzz Maryland in July for DISCOVER-AQ project

In the coming weeks, a giant swath of Maryland will look and sound like Gravelly Point Park, with airplanes buzzing the ground as low as 1,000 feet.

The planes are part of a month-long NASA project to monitor air quality around Washington, D.C., formally known as Deriving Information on Surface conditions from Column and Vertically Resolved Observations Relevant to Air Quality (DISCOVER -- AQ mission page). For you flight geeks out there, the aircraft that will be used are a 117-foot P-3B NASA research plane, a four-engine turboprop, originally designed to detect submarines; a two-engine UC-12; and a Cessna operated by the University of Maryland. The first flight is on Friday. (Flight schedule.)

The planes will collect data on what’s in the air from Beltsville north to Fairhill, Md., a flight path that encompasses I-95, the Baltimore-Washington Parkway and the Chesapeake Bay. Instruments on board will sniff out the levels of ozone, soot and formaldehyde, commonly known for its corpse-preservation applications but also a naturally-produced atmospheric gas. As can be seen in this map, at times the P-3B will spiral downward to altitudes so ear-rattlingly low that NASA has felt it prudent to caution drivers to “hold on to the steering wheel of their cars,” per the University of Maryland, Baltimore County's "Smog Blog." Check the light-up highway signs on I-95 for impending flights.

The I-95 corridor between the District and Baltimore is among the top 20 smoggiest urban areas in the country. The space agency is hoping that these flights will help fine-tune the measurements of air quality taken by satellites, which today can be wildly off because of interference caused by cloud cover and ground reflection. After palpating D.C.’s atmospheric health this July, NASA will take the show on the road to Houston and other filthy-aired cities.

Air pollution is estimated to caused about 2 million premature deaths every year worldwide, according to the World Health Organization. Here’s hoping that these flights can alleviate some of the coughing. If you’re interested in learning more, Ray Hoff of the Smog Blog will be giving a talk tomorrow (Tuesday) at 6 p.m. at the Rockville BBQ joint, Branded ’72.