Wednesday

8th Jul 2020

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.

Read and decide

Join EUobserver today

Support quality EU news

Get instant access to all articles — and 20 years of archives. 14-day free trial.

... or subscribe as a group

  • 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.

Facial-recognition moratorium back on EU agenda

Members of the committee on civil liberties widely supported a moratorium on facial recognition for law enforcement purposes, just after the EU data watchdog backed earlier this week the ban on this technology in public spaces.

News in Brief

  1. France and Germany warn Israel on annexation 'consequences'
  2. Shipping firms to face EU carbon regime
  3. EU to mediate between Greece, Cyprus, and Turkey
  4. EU to unveil arms-trafficking and drug proposals
  5. EU to discuss people-smuggling with African states
  6. 'Torture chamber' found in Dutch sea containers
  7. Commissioner backs under-attack Hungarian news site
  8. New French government tilts to right

Opinion

And now some questions for China's TikTok

At the height of the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests last fall, for example, hashtags relating to the protests appeared abundantly on platforms like Twitter. On TikTok, however, the same hashtags yielded scant results and almost no signs of unrest.

Coronavirus

EU wants to pay in advance for promising vaccines

EU health ministers will discuss on Friday plans to have the Commission negotiate with pharmaceutical companies on behalf of EU countries, make advaced payments and secure enough vaccines for Europeans.

Stakeholders' Highlights

  1. UNESDANext generation Europe should be green and circular
  2. Nordic Council of MinistersNEW REPORT: Eight in ten people are concerned about climate change
  3. UNESDAHow reducing sugar and calories in soft drinks makes the healthier choice the easy choice
  4. Nordic Council of MinistersGreen energy to power Nordic start after Covid-19
  5. European Sustainable Energy WeekThis year’s EU Sustainable Energy Week (EUSEW) will be held digitally!
  6. Nordic Council of MinistersNordic states are fighting to protect gender equality during corona crisis

Latest News

  1. The opportunistic peace
  2. EU mulls new system to check illegal pushbacks of migrants
  3. EU forecasts deeper recession, amid recovery funds row
  4. Revealed: fossil-fuel lobbying behind EU hydrogen strategy
  5. Commission chief under fire for Croatia campaign video
  6. Parliament vaping booths 'too confidential' to discuss
  7. Belarus: Inside Lukashenko’s crackdown on independent voices
  8. The rationale behind US troop withdrawals from Germany

Join EUobserver

Support quality EU news

Join us