Better weather forecasts expected using laser-equipped spacecraft

Image credit: esa

The European Space Agency (ESA) is launching a new spacecraft this evening that uses lasers to measure wind travel in order to provide more accurate weather forecasts.

According to the UK Space Agency, the new approach could “revolutionise” the accuracy of weather forecasting, helping to protect people from disasters like floods and hurricanes across the world.

The Aeolus spacecraft was built by Airbus Defence and Space in Stevenage. Other British businesses provided critical elements to the mission, including a camera, software and propulsion systems.

It will be equipped with an instrument dubbed Aladin, short for Atmospheric Laser Doppler Instrument, that will use a powerful 3.4kW laser, a large telescope and a very sensitive receiver to probe the atmosphere.

The time between sending the light pulse and receiving the reflected signal indicates the position of particles in the atmosphere and allows Aladin to track the speed at which they move in the wind.

The mission will provide scientists with data on winds in remote areas, such as over oceans, that they have not been able to get from weather balloons, ground stations and airplanes, but which are crucial to predicting changes in weather.

Aeolus is the fifth of ESA’s Earth Explorer missions, which address critical Earth science issues.

“Forecasting is of course still limited, but then we will certainly be able to understand the processes better that lead to extreme weather phenomena,” said Paolo Ferri, ESA’s head of mission operations.

Many scientists warn that global warming will result in more frequent and intense heatwaves, precipitation and storms, causing billions of euros in damage and costing thousands of human lives every year.

Better weather forecasts will allow scientists to warn the population when hurricanes are heading their way and predict weather patterns such as El Niño, which can cause crop damage, fires and flash floods.

The Aeolus mission - named after a character of Greek mythology who was appointed keeper of the winds - is scheduled to blast off from Europe’s space port in Kourou, French Guiana, on board a Vega rocket at 21:20 GMT (6:20pm local time) on Wednesday.

The launch was pushed back by a day from Tuesday due to winds over the space port.

Scientists hope the Aeolus mission will deliver the first set of data to a ground station in Svalbard, Norway, early next year and keep operating for around three to four years.

At that point, Aeolus is expected to run out of fuel, as its relatively low altitude of around 320km means it is exposed to friction from Earth’s atmosphere, requiring it to correct its position frequently.

In 2016, the UK committed €1.4bn (£1.3bn) to a range of ESA space programmes and invests around €350m every year.

Last month, E&T looked at how demand from businesses and industry for information about how the weather is spurring researchers to develop new tech for better forecasts. 

Sign up to the E&T News e-mail to get great stories like this delivered to your inbox every day.

Recent articles