ATom Science Overview


ATom builds the scientific foundation for mitigation of short-lived climate forcers, in particular methane (CH4), tropospheric ozone (O3), and Black Carbon aerosols (BC). O3 is also a driver of tropospheric photochemistry and air quality. CH4 is a factor in rising levels of O3 and stratospheric humidity.

Science Questions

Tier 1

  • What are chemical processes that control the short-lived climate forcing agents CH4, O3, and BC in the atmosphere? How is the chemical reactivity of the atmosphere on a global scale affected by anthropogenic emissions? How can we improve chemistry-climate modeling of these processes?

Tier 2

  • Over large, remote regions, what are the distributions of BC and other aerosols important as short-lived climate forcers? What are the sources of new particles? How rapidly do aerosols grow to CCN-active sizes? How well are these processes represented in models?
  • What type of variability and spatial gradients occur over remote ocean regions for greenhouse gases (GHGs) and ozone depleting substances (ODSs)? How do the variations among air parcels help identify anthropogenic influences on photochemical reactivity, validate satellite data for these gases, and refine knowledge of sources and sinks?


ATom makes global-scale measurements of the chemistry of the atmosphere using the NASA DC-8 aircraft. Flights span the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans, nearly pole-to-pole, in continuous profiling mode, covering remote regions that might have been regarded as pristine 20 years ago but today receive long-range inputs of pollution from expanding industrial economies. The payload has 15 proven instruments for in situ measurements of reactive and long-lived gases, diagnostic chemical tracers, and aerosol size, number, and composition, plus spectrally resolved solar radiation and meteorological parameters.

ATom measures more than 100 distinct chemical, aerosol, radiative, and physical parameters. Fast instrument sampling rates provide spatially resolved, simultaneous, and contiguous observational data, providing a nearly complete chemical description of each air parcel.

Combining distributions of aerosols and reactive gases with long-lived GHGs and ODSs enables disentangling of the processes that regulate atmospheric chemistry: emissions, transport, cloud processes, and chemical transformations. ATom analyzes measurements using customized modeling tools to derive daily averaged chemical rates for key atmospheric processes and to critically evaluate Chemistry-Climate Models (CCMs). ATom also differentiates between hypotheses for the formation and growth of aerosols over the remote oceans.

ATom is closely linked to satellites measuring atmospheric chemical composition: (i) ATom provides unique data for validation and algorithm development for OCO-2, GOME-2, TROPOMI, GOSAT, plus those planned for geostationary orbit (TEMPO), and the TCCON network. (ii) ATom uses satellite data to extend its airborne in-situ observations to global scale. (iii) ATom directly engages CCM groups and delivers a single, large-scale, contiguous in-situ data set for model evaluation and improvement.


ATom delivers unique data and analysis to address the Science Mission Directorate objectives of acquiring “data sets that identify and characterize important phenomena in the changing Earth system.” and “measurements that address weaknesses in current Earth system models leading to improvement in modeling capabilities.” ATom will provide unprecedented challenges to the CCMs used as policy tools for climate change assessments, with comprehensive data on atmospheric chemical reactivity at global scales, and will work closely with modeling teams to translate ATom data to better, more reliable CCMs. ATom provides extraordinary validation data for remote sensing.