The European Space Agency will launch a satellite on Wednesday that will launch a laser through space to measure the waves and currents of the earth's winds in near real-time.
Named after Aeolus, the ancient Greek "guardian of the winds" Scientists have high expectations of the craft, which – if successful – should significantly improve the weather forecast.
Docked on a Vega rocket, the 480 million-euro satellite is scheduled to fly from Kourou in French Guiana at 18:20 local time (17:20 ET) Tuesday, August 21. Ironically, adverse weather conditions put the start back at least 24 hours.
When in space, the satellite will be in orbit at a height of 200 miles, moving around our planet in a sun-synchronous loop. From there it will beam a laser into the atmosphere and measure the signal that springs back from tiny particles that pass through the sky.
The satellite will study the weather from the Earth's surface up to a height of 20 miles. This information will help meteorologists to better understand the speed and direction of the wind in near real time. The storage of this data in weather models should greatly improve the quality of the forecasts.
The benefits of accurate forecasts are hard to overestimate. In addition to helping you decide what you need to carry every day, weather forecasts are crucial for industries such as agriculture, shipping, aviation and energy. And when it comes to extreme weather, accurate predictions save lives.
"By measuring wind better, you also understand the whole functioning of the Earth system better," said European Space Agency Earth observation director, Josef Aschbacher, on his way to Kourou
But with the rising costs and more than a decade of delays, it has been a long and frustrating way to get this cut-edge satellite ready for launch. Perhaps most of all was the discovery that the crucial laser system does not even work in the vacuum of space.
Although the satellite has spent its entire life in clean rooms, organic matter will still have crept in. Without air, this contaminant may coke and overheat parts of the satellite, but the Aeolus team has come up with a solution: tiny oxygen blasts. " A Stream of Oxygen [can] disperses [the] nebulae of molecules that come out of the optical system, "explained Aschbacher.
After delays, improvements, and a successful six-month spell in a chamber that equip the effects of space, engineers finally for the real thing.
"We had some tests d it lasers before, and they failed, and we have learned from these tests what needs to be improved, "said Aschbacher. "We are confident that it works in space."