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NASA to fly low over Baltimore-Washington area

By Veronica Foreman, CNN
  • NASA planes will sample Washington D.C.-Maryland air
  • Agency is worried low flights could cause undue concern
  • Mission essential to gather data, agency says
  • Washington area to be sampled first

Washington (CNN) -- A misguided photo shoot of Air Force One over New York City in 2009 terrified residents, infuriated the president, and cost the director of the White House Military Office his job. Now, NASA is working to prevent a similar panic in Washington D.C.

NASA officials this week announced plans for a new mission to monitor air pollution in the Baltimore-Washington traffic corridor that will include a series of low-altitude flights between the two cities. Trying to prevent a repeat of the chaos raised in New York, they are eager to get the word out to the public.

Michael Finneran, spokesman for the DISCOVER-AQ project, says that NASA is publicizing the flights to generate awareness and to make sure people "won't be surprised." "Public safety is paramount," he said.

NASA plans to use a P-3B, a 117-foot, four-engine turboprop plane, for flights that will be as low as 1,000 feet. The lower of the two aircraft will fly in spirals over several ground measurement stations along the flight path, which includes Interstate 95 and crosses over the Chesapeake Bay Bridge.

The other aircraft will fly at around 26,000 feet. The flights are scheduled to start no earlier than June 27 and go through July.

Working with federal and state environmental agencies on this analysis, NASA says the flights are critical. All flights will be posted on the NASA website the night before takeoff.

"For some of these pollutant gases, the satellites are not as effective in detecting the quantities near the ground as they are at higher altitudes," Ken Pickering, a project scientist explained. Low-flying aircraft will help answer questions about existing data, and will provide "a complete picture of air quality over the Baltimore-Washington region," Pickering said.

Potential benefits from the research are not limited to Washington. Pickering said that these experiments "will help NASA design a next generation of air-quality satellites" leading to analyses for cities across the country, so that "ultimately public health can be better protected."

Flights are scheduled in Houston next, in 2013, and could be followed by flights in Los Angeles, Birmingham, Alabama or Atlanta.

So if you're in the Washington D.C. area over the next month, and happen to catch a glimpse of a startlingly low NASA aircraft -- don't hold your breath. In fact, NASA is hoping the new study will help everyone breathe easier.