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NASA, SpaceX launch a powerful new instrument to the ISS to study dust

A payload making its way to the International Space Station could help researchers on Earth finally solve a climate puzzle that has plagued scientists for years. NASA launched a key tool for its climate research called the Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation (EMIT) from Kennedy Space Center on board a SpaceX Dragon spacecraft on Thursday evening.

Dust is a surprisingly powerful force in the atmosphere, which is why NASA is determined to understand it better. The tiny particles are blown up from deserts and other dry areas and can cool down depending on many different factors or heating effect on our planet. However, what scenario is actually playing out across the world continues to elude science.

“EMIT studies mineral dust because it is currently an unknown element,” said Robert Green, EMIT principal investigator and chief research scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, at a July 13 briefing on the mission. “Not only the extent to which it heats or cools, but whether it heats or cools is uncertain.”

One reason dust is such a mystery is that dust particles come in different colors. For example, it could be dark red because it contains iron. Dust particles containing clay, on the other hand, are usually much lighter in color.

These lighter dust particles reflect sunlight, helping to cool the planet. At the other end of the spectrum, dark dust particles actually absorb the sun’s energy and have a heating effect instead. With climate change already heating things up to dangerous levels for life on Earth, scientists really want to know if dust is helping or hurting efforts to stabilize global temperatures.

This is where EMIT can help. It is used an instrument called an advanced imaging spectrometer to collect over a billion measurements over the next year and map the composition of dust around the world. To do this, the instrument actually measures the spectrum of light reflected from our planet’s surface. This will tell scientists how much dust in the atmosphere is from dark minerals or light minerals. Hopefully this finally solves the mystery of what impact dust is having on the planet overall, as well as the warming or cooling effects it might have from region to region.

An illustration from NASA's EMIT

As shown in this image, NASA’s EMIT will be attached to Express Logistics Carrier 1, a platform on the International Space Station that supports external scientific instruments.
Image: NASA

Answering these questions is critical to building better climate models that researchers use to try to understand what climate change might have in store for us in the future. Currently, climate models generally assume that the dust is yellow – on average, a mix of dark and light dust.

“We wanted to broadcast [EMIT] Because of a gap in our knowledge, it relates to climate now and in the future, and that will allow us to have better information on how to adapt to climate change,” Green said at the briefing.

Beyond climate change, EMIT’s data will also be used to study other phenomena on Earth that are affected by dust. Dust can travel thousands of miles from North Africa to the Amazon rainforest, where it provides nutrients to plants. Dust also plays a role in cloud formation, air quality, and even water availability. If it lands on snow, it can accelerate snowmelt – which many regions, including the arid western US, depend on for fresh water.

The International Space Station’s orbit around the planet is ideal for dust measurements, as it orbits some of the largest on Earth dry regions. Deserts are the source of most of the dust that migrates around the world. The harsh, remote conditions of these regions have made it difficult for scientists to hand-pick dust samples over large areas of the ground.

EMIT, along with 5,800 pounds of other science experiments and crew material, is scheduled to arrive on the International Space Station at approximately 11:20 am ET on Saturday, July 16. It should be ready to begin collecting data by the end of July, which NASA expects to share publicly within about two months.

https://www.theverge.com/2022/7/15/23219999/nasa-spacex-iss-emit-instrument-dust-climate-research NASA, SpaceX launch a powerful new instrument to the ISS to study dust

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