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Why a plane will be flying low over some French towns in coming weeks

The north east of the country has been chosen to be studied as part of a scientific project run by NASA and 49 other teams

The project is set to measure greenhouse gas emissions over the towns, which could offer insights into areas such as the Reims low-emission zone Pic: mykhailo pavlenko / Shutterstock

A plane is set to fly very low over the towns of Reims, Châlons, and Epernay in Marne, northeastern France, over the next few weeks as part of a global scientific campaign.

The US space agency, NASA, is one of the 50 scientific teams taking part in the programme, which is aiming to measure gas emissions in the skies above the towns. 

A plane will fly at just 100 to 300 metres altitude as part of the project. In comparison, most commercial jets typically fly at between 10,000 and 12,000 metres at full altitude.

Other teams to be involved in the campaign come from 12 different labs, including the CNES (le Centre national d’études spatiales en France) via the scientific consortium Magic, and the Centre national de la recherche scientifique (CNRS), as part of the Université de Reims-Champagne-Ardenne (Urca).

Lilian Joly, from the CNRS, told France3: “We are interested in urban emissions and emissions from methane plants.”

The measuring, via the Urca innovation project centre Aérolab, will be carried out using ground-level sensors and balloon releases in addition to the plane. 

The Aérolab (Atmospheric Research and Observations LABoratory) research cluster aims to improve the monitoring of atmospheric emissions (greenhouse gases (GHG), ammonia (NH3), and aerosols) in the Grand Est region.

In a tweet, the lab said: “The instrument research plane Safire will fly low over Reims to analyse air. Don’t panic!”

Reims has been chosen for this project due to the presence of an “almost unique, balloon release” infrastructure in France, and because it is a medium-sized city, which will help to keep the project manageable, the team said. There is also a suitable plane available to help.

The data collected by the plane and the balloons released will be collected, modelled, and projected onto a "spatio-temporal map", experts added.

Discussions are underway with local authorities (including the Greater Reims council) on ways in which the data could benefit the town, including whether it could offer insights into the Reims low-emission zone (ZFEm), which aims to "reduce greenhouse gases".

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