A Powerful ISS Instrument Will Hunt for Minerals in Dusty Lands

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What blows through the Sahara doesn’t stay in the Sahara. The vast African desert regularly burps up clouds of dust that fly into Europe, turning snow-capped mountains orange. They travel clear across the Atlantic Ocean, fertilizing the Amazon rain forest with phosphorus. The stuff can even reach the United States

But for all their bluster, the Sahara’s dust emissions—and the grime from any other desert region—are not well accounted for in climate models. While satellites can track the plumes as they move around the atmosphere, scientists don’t have enough data to definitively show how dust could cool or warm the planet, either accelerating or slowing human-caused climate change

“Our data sets are based on 5,000 samples of soil, and that's not nearly enough coverage,” says Natalie Mahowald, an Earth system scientist at Cornell University. “Nobody wants to go to the middle of the desert to figure out what soils are.” So Mahowald has been collaborating with NASA on the Earth Surface Mineral Dust Source Investigation mission, or EMIT, which launches to the International Space Station next month. Their instrument will use a powerful technique known as spectroscopy, which astronomers have used for decades to determine the composition of faraway objects, but turn it earthward to analyze our own lands. That will finally give scientists a global portrait of ...

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