The ASPECT plane has been deployed for emergencies across the country, carrying chemical and radiological detection equipment to alert first responders and civilians in the path of toxic plumes from fires, train derailments, truck rollovers and plant explosions.

ASPECT—an acronym for Airborne Spectral Photometric Environmental Collection Technology—is the nation’s only 24/7 emergency response aircraft with chemical-plume-mapping capability, according to Los Alamos National Laboratory. The plane uses infrared technology to visualize invisible, odorless chemicals in the air.

According to the laboratory, ASPECT detectors can determine the chemical composition of a plume and its level of concentration from a distance, alerting emergency crews on the ground of potential hazards.

“Essentially, our job is to offer expertise in the detection of chemical vapors being released from the fires,” said Bob Kroutil of the Los Alamos National Laboratory’s Bioscience Division.

Within minutes of the plane arriving on the scene, ASPECT data is collected and a field analysis is performed. The data is simultaneously sent to Los Alamos, where it is further analyzed. According to the laboratory, the entire process from data collection to a full assessment takes less than 15 minutes.

ASPECT responded to hurricanes Katrina and Rita

Since the program was started in September 2001, the ASPECT plane has responded 62 times to accidents and disasters such as the 2005 BP Texas City refinery explosion, the NASA space shuttle debris search, the Salt Lake City Winter Olympics and the summer 2003 fires in California.

The EPA also deployed the ASPECT aircraft during hurricanes Katrina and Rita to collect information on potential releases of chemical vapors due to storm damage and to send hazmat responders to specific danger sites to alleviate risk to the community and environment.

ASPECT system uses three sensors

The plane, a twin-engine Aerocommander 680 aircraft regularly based in the Dallas, vicinity, is equipped with a multi-spectral infrared mapping system and a Fourier Transform Infrared spectrometer package called ASPECT.

According to Los Alamos, the ASPECT system uses three sensors on the aircraft, operated by an EPA first-responder crew:

  • The first sensor—the Fourier Transform Infrared Spectrometer—detects and locates chemical vapors. It can see through smoke and dust to get a measurement of the location and concentration of the vapor plume.
  • A second sensor—a high-resolution Infrared Line Scanner—records an image of the ground below, as well as plume information.
  • The system then uses Global Positioning System mapping data and digital images of the site to create exact maps and digital data overlays of chemical plumes and low-area locations where toxin-laden air may accumulate.

Los Alamos National Laboratory is a multidisciplinary research institution engaged in strategic science on behalf of national security. The Laboratory is operated by a team comprised of Bechtel National, the University of California, BWX Technologies and Washington Group International for the Department of Energy's National Nuclear Security Administration.