It's no secret we live in an area that has some of the nation's worst air pollution. Now, NASA is on a mission over Kern County to provide scientists with more accurate air quality forecasts.
You may have seen a low-flying aircraft in Bakersfield over the past few days. The plane is part of a unique study that could affect local air advisories and alerts.
Ricardo Morales woke up this week to a roaring sound above his home in south Bakersfield. "Either I'm in bed or I'm getting ready for work when I hear a pretty loud noise. It's an airplane that's flying pretty low," said Morales.
Morales pulled out his cell phone and shot video of the low-flying aircraft. "It just kind of circled around quite a few times and I was able to see the tail of it and it said NASA," he explained.
NASA is flying in the sky over the San Joaquin Valley, studying our region's air pollution. "The entire San Joaquin Valley has a very unique air quality issue in the wintertime. The air can become very stagnant," said Ken Pickering, Project Scientist at NASA's Goodard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
NASA is flying two aircraft, loaded with scientific equipment, to measure pollution levels. The bigger aircraft is easier to spot at an altitude of less than 1,000 feet.
The smaller aircraft is flying at about 26,000 feet, using laser equipment to see the atmosphere as satellites do from space.
"It's a challenge for NASA satellites to be able to accurately measure the air quality. Bringing the aircraft in to gather the data will really aid in providing us information that will be useful to the air pollution control community," continued Pickering.
The flights are part of a five-year, $30 million mission to help researchers develop new satellites to measure air pollution from space.
"Satellites enable a much broader view of air quality that couldn't be achieved by just ground stations," noted Pickering.
The data could one day help us better predict air quality and control pollution in the Central Valley.
"In the wintertime, we have our wood burning curtailment. We need to be able to be accurate," explained David Lighthall, Health Science Adviser for the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District in Fresno.
"Sometimes if we make a mistake, we can pay a price. We end up with more pollution. We need to make good predictions. We also have a summertime parallel to that and that's our air alerts. We need to know when those air alerts need to be called," he continued.
The NASA flights will continue over the next two weeks. The planes are focusing on heavy traffic and agricultural areas in Bakersfield and Fresno.