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NASA selects pollution-monitoring hosted payload

Posted: November 8, 2012

NASA announced Thursday it intends to place a pollution-monitoring sensor on a commercial communications satellite for launch in 2017, marking the first time the space agency has capitalized on the growing hosted payload trend for a scientific mission.

The Tropospheric Emissions: Monitoring of Pollution, or TEMPO, instrument will fly on a commercial communications satellite in geostationary orbit more than 22,000 miles above Earth's equator.

Selected from 14 proposals submitted to NASA's Earth Venture program, the TEMPO payload will observe Earth's atmosphere in ultraviolet and visible wavelengths to measure concentrations of pollutants over North America, according to NASA.

TEMPO will track changing levels of ozone, nitrogen dioxide, sulfur dioxide, formaldehyde, and aerosols in the atmosphere, according to NASA.

The mission is cost-capped at $90 million.

TEMPO is the first scientific sensor NASA has selected for flight as a hosted payload on a commercial communications satellite. The agency also plans at least two hosted payloads - a laser communications testbed and a deep space atomic clock - on commercial satellites, but those missions are managed under NASA's technology development program.

"NASA is excited to make this initial step into using commercially available space on geostationary communication satellites to engage in cutting edge science," said John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator of NASA's science mission directorate. "We expect to see significant advances in air quality research with TEMPO. The vantage point of geostationary orbit offers the potential for many new opportunities in other areas of Earth system science."

NASA has not selected a specific host satellite for the TEMPO payload, but the agency expects numerous suitable satellites to be available to carry the sensor in the 2017 time frame.

Proponents say hosted payloads offer low-cost opportunities for scientific instruments or demonstration missions to use excess capacity on commercial satellites.

The U.S. Air Force is flying an infrared sensor on a communications satellite owned by SES, and the European Commission launched a payload to augment GPS navigation services on another SES satellite in July.

An innovative Internet routing system sponsored by the U.S. military was launched aboard an Intelsat satellite in 2009, and a specialized UHF communications payload for Australian defense forces was launched on Intelsat 22 in March.

The next-generation constellation of 66 Iridium communications satellites has been tapped to carry air traffic monitoring payloads.