News Release, NASA

The Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) aboard NASA’s Aura satellite specializes in finding “fingerprints” — signatures of gases and particles that clutter the atmosphere. By measuring solar radiation reflected from Earth’s surface and scattered by its atmosphere, the OMI team derives important information about aerosols such as dust and smoke and pollutants like nitrogen and sulfur dioxide.

The team also estimates ozone amounts in two areas of Earth’s atmosphere. In the upper atmosphere (also called the stratosphere or “ozone layer”), ozone acts as a shield to protect life from harmful ultraviolet radiation, but in the lower atmosphere (or troposphere), it is a greenhouse gas and pollutant. The team’s data products report ozone concentrations in both places to monitor its influence on climate change and the ozone layer’s recovery from damage caused by harmful manmade chemicals such as chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs). 

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“The OMI international team continues to make significant advances in retrieval algorithm development for clouds, aerosols and important trace gases, including pollutants,” said Bryan Duncan, current Aura project scientist.

For more than a decade, the OMI team, comprised of members from the Netherlands, Finland and the US, has worked together to provide these valuable data sets and to validate them by comparing them with data from the ground, aircraft and other satellites. In addition, the Dutch team handles flight operations and the Finnish team operates the “Very Fast Delivery” (VFD) system, which processes OMI data within 15 minutes of collection. The VFD system’s speed is crucial in situations such as volcanic eruptions, where aircraft need to be rapidly diverted away from dangerous ash plumes that can damage engines.

OMI data are used in “chemical weather forecasts” to improve predictions of air quality and its impacts on human health. So far, their research has shown that in some parts of the world air quality is improving, while in other places it is getting worse.

Principal investigator Pieternel Levelt of the Netherlands explained that OMI’s detailed data had the best mapping capability of any instrument of its kind for more than a decade, and this led to unexpected discoveries and applications, such as finding previously unknown sources of air pollutants.

The multinational Ozone Monitoring Instrument (OMI) team recently received the 2018 William T. Pecora award for their achievements in Earth remote sensing. The team of Dutch, Finnish and American scientists studies gases and particles in the atmosphere to understand air quality, climate change and pollution
Credits: Maarten Sneep, Dutch Royal Meteorological Institute

“OMI can distinguish air pollution caused by different emission sources and is very suited for air pollution analyses,” Levelt said.

Launched in 2004 aboard the Aura satellite, OMI was originally designed for a six-year lifespan, but it will celebrate 15 years of data collection in 2019.

“OMI has had a crucial role in showing how air quality can be observed from space reliably and continuously for years,” said Finnish co-principal investigator Johanna Tamminen.

In addition to technical and scientific achievements, the OMI team is distinctive in another way: “OMI is currently led by three female scientists, which is very rare in the Earth observation satellite business,” Levelt said.

Levelt is the PI and leads the team at the Dutch Royal Meteorological Institute (KNMI); Tamminen leads a team at the Finnish Meteorological Institute (FMI); and NASA-appointed U.S. OMI science team leader Joanna Joiner coordinates the U.S. team. The U.S. team is comprised of scientists from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland and the Harvard Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory (SAO) in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

To learn more about OMI, visit

To learn more about the Women@NASA initiative, visit

David M. Higgins II is an award-winning journalist passionate about uncovering the truth and telling compelling stories. Born in Baltimore and raised in Southern Maryland, he has lived in several East...