After nearly two decades of design and testing, the European Space Agency (ESA) has successfully launched the Aeolus satellite. Aboard the satellite is a laser that will measure wind speeds across the globe. Aeolus could vastly increase the data scientists have on wind speeds, improving weather forecasting and providing new resources to climate researchers.
The ESA began the Aeolus project way back in 2002, but the laser instrument was more challenging to design than anyone expected. It was supposed to launch in 2007 originally. Airbus Defense and Space handled the primary construction at a final cost of €480 million ($550 million), but it could be well worth the price as Aeolus delivers extensive atmospheric data never before available to scientists. This is the fifth launch in the ESA’s Earth Explorer program, which uses satellites to take improved measurements of specific parts of Earth.
Aeolus headed into space early on August 23 aboard a Vega rocket launched from the ESA’s facility in French Guiana. The Aeolus satellite detached from the rocket 55 minutes into the flight and ground stations reported confirmed contact with the spacecraft. Now, Aeolus will turn its laser toward Earth to gather data.
After settling into a polar orbit 199 miles above the planet, Aeolus will aim its Atmospheric Laser Doppler Instrument (ALADIN) into the atmosphere. This is a high-power ultraviolet laser that pulses 50 times per second. Light from the laser bounces off the atmosphere at various levels and returns to the satellite where it is collected by a 1.5-meter telescope. The light returns with a slightly different frequency, which is known as Doppler shift. By analyzing the difference between the original frequency and the new one, scientists can determine wind speeds.
No previous mission has been able to measure wind speeds across multiple layers of the atmosphere on a global scale. Aeolus data should provide a compelling alternative to weather balloon and airplane flights that can only gather data on limited geographic areas. Aeolus is designed to measure wind speeds from the Earth’s surface up to an altitude of 30 kilometers (18.6 miles).
Currently, weather models rely in part upon simulated “boundary conditions” for wind speed. These figures are based on the smattering of real data available, but Aeolus will offer near real-time measurements of wind speed across multiple layers of the atmosphere. The UK-based European Center for Medium Range Weather Forecasts is already planning to inject Aeolus data directly into its models.
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