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28th Jan 2021

Interview

European wind satellite in orbit: The launch of a life's work

  • Aeolus was launched successfully on Wednesday, after a one-day postponement because of bad weather conditions (Photo: ESA)

The European Space Agency's Aeolus satellite, with a unique wind-profiling laser instrument on board, was successfully launched on Wednesday (22 August) from the European spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana.

"It was a really special moment," said Dutch meteorologist Ad Stoffelen, who has been involved in the project for more than two decades.

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  • Stoffelen has spent decades on the laser instrument which went into space (Photo: Peter Teffer)

"I fully realised that the satellite that we had built was in there," he said about the Vega-rocket which was launched at 11:20PM Brussels time.

The idea of putting a satellite in orbit to improve wind measurements by using laser has a long history.

It dates back to the Ronald Reagan presidency years in the 1980s and his Strategic Defence Initiative – or Star Wars.

While the weaponised space lasers were never deployed, the plan did stimulate thinking about civil applications.

Ideas crossed the Atlantic to Europe. Stoffelen was asked to work on it as well and co-authored a report in 1998 which promoted the concept of a wind-measuring satellite.

ESA and its member states decided to go ahead and order the laser satellite, but at the time the instrument did not exist yet.

"Laser technology was not mature at all," Stoffelen told EUobserver.

"Everyone knew that they were taking a risk. But the industrial partners were confident that it would work," he noted.

Stoffelen became a member of ESA's mission advisory group.

But the concept was difficult to realise and the development took much longer than excepted.

The launch on Wednesday was 11 years later than originally foreseen. The total cost of the entire operation was €480m.

But Stoffelen said he never doubted the project.

"We continuously encountered a problem, found a solution for it, and then encountered a new problem," he said.

"It was slow, but there was always progress," he said.

Although the satellite is now in orbit, it will take some time before scientists on Earth can conclude if it is producing useful data.

The expectation is that it will provide wind patterns that can help improve weather forecasts, but will also be useful for climate research.

In the end it is a proof of concept.

Is there a chance that the instrument does not produce useful data, EUobserver asked?

"I am not saying that I don't allow for that possibility. But on the other hand: we have worked really hard to rule that out," said Stoffelen.

The Dutch researcher is already thinking about the next steps.

The Aeolus has a scheduled operational period of just 3.5 years – although it could be longer – and would not be a permanent system.

That, Stoffelen believed, would require global cooperation.

"I think it is an enormous achievement by Europe and by ESA that we built this," he said.

He said that he had been receiving good-luck messages from American colleagues because they know that if this works, there is a higher chance that they could convince politicians there to invest in a similar project.

How to coordinate such international cooperation is something Stoffelen will be considering in the near future.

The 56-year old meteorologist spent more than half his career involved in the project.

"My life work is being launched," he had written on Facebook ahead of the launch.

EUobserver spoke to Stoffelen again a few hours after the launch.

"It was really overwhelming," he said, smiling broadly.

But there was still one task left – the satellite still had to turn on its solar array.

Some time after the second interview, a colleague came up to Stoffelen to let him know that this had also been achieved.

"Excellent," he told this colleague. "We have power, excellent!"

EU's new strategy shuns space exploration

The commission wants to focus on the commercial potential of space rather than the educational or scientific benefits, much to the annoyance of some MEPs.

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