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Deadly air pollution seen from space

Air pollution is known as the invisible killer for good reason. It causes 40,000 people to die prematurely each year in the UK but many of the deadly gases we breath are impossible to see with the naked eye.

Today we got the best ever picture of our toxic air as seen from space. They're from a new satellite called Sentinel-5P which was built in Stevenage and launched into orbit six weeks ago. Today's pictures are ten times sharper than anything we've seen before and put together from twenty million observations everyday.

Pollution can be seen from power plants in India. Credit: ESA

The images show ozone in the atmosphere, nitrogen dioxide released from factories and even sulphur dioxide from Mount Agung which has been erupting in Bali.

Sentinel-5P captures Bali volcanic eruption from Mount Agung. Credit: ESA

Before we used to measure on the size of a region, now we're going to be able to look at towns and cities - 7 by 3 kilometres the pixel size so we can now look at where that pollution came from and where it's moving with the wind as we track it with this daily revisit.

– Liz Seward, Airbus
Sentinel-5P sees nitrogen dioxide over Europe. Credit: ESA

Combined with weather forecasts, the data from Sentinel 5P will help pollution experts forecast toxic air episodes.

Whilst the resolution of the data is still not as good as monitoring stations at ground level Professor Frank Kelly from Kings College London believes it will be a useful tool in assessing the causes of climate change.

This is pollution on Earth as seen from space. Credit: ESA

It will sort of set a base line and we'll be looking at the trends in these different pollutants in time.

Clearly there are a lot of different policies being discussed, being enacted at the moment to reduce pollution and we want to see that those policies are working.

– Professor Frank Kelly, Kings College London

There's just one problem, Sentinel-5P can't see through cloud. So whilst we already have data showing pollution in Italy's industrial north - we'll have to wait for clearer skies before we see more of this country.