Nasa has collaborated with Cornell University in the US to conduct a joint study to understand how desert dust affects climates from space.

Titled Earth surface Mineral dust source InvesTigation (EMIT), the $60m collaboration includes an advanced imaging spectrometer that will be mounted on the International Space Station aimed at desert regions worldwide.

The instrument is currently under development at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) with input from a team that includes EMIT deputy principal investigator Natalie Mahowald, along with other co-investigators.

Once developed, the instrument will use imaging spectroscopy methods to measure the soil and mineral composition of desert dust, also known as mineral aerosols.

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“Nasa has been developing new spectrometers that produce detailed maps of soil composition, which is exactly what we need.”

Data to be provided by the imaging spectrometer will be used by Cornell scientists’ models to determine the way dust affects the climate.

Mahowald said: “Nasa has been developing new spectrometers that produce detailed maps of soil composition, which is exactly what we need.

“We’ll take these maps and then model the distribution of the dust, as well as the different chemical components.

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“From that, we can calculate whether the dust is warming or cooling the planet. It’s a convergence in the development of the technology and the developing of the science questions that make this a really compelling project.”

Mahowald added that deserts are ideal places to apply this technology, because the lack of cloud cover makes them easy to observe from space.

Nasa Goddard Institute for Space Studies and Columbia University climate scientist Ron Miller said:“Desperation is a key ingredient of our current estimates of dust composition.

“EMIT will provide a million times more measurements, giving us for the first time quantitative and nearly global information about the composition of soil particles that become airborne.”

The EMIT project was chosen from 14 proposals received under Nasa’s Earth Venture Instrument initiative, which funds small and targeted investigations that complement the agency’s larger missions.