ESA launches satellite that will map Earth's winds

Data the satellite returns will fill gaps in scientists' knowledge of wind movement on Earth.
By Laurel Kornfeld | Aug 24, 2018
The European Space Agency (ESA) just launched the first satellite that will map Earth's winds on a global scale, appropriately named Aeolus after the wind guardian in Greek mythology.

Aeolus is one component of a larger collaboration between the European Union (EU) and the ESA known as the Copernicus project. Its goal is to track environmental damage worldwide and assist in disaster relief operations.

Equipped with an advanced laser system known as Doppler wind lidar, which is capable of measuring wind patterns on Earth from space, the satellite launched from the Guiana Space Center in French Guiana on Wednesday, August 22, at 9:20 PM UT (5:20 PM ET), following a 24-hour delay due to poor weather.

The fifth of ESA's Earth Explorer missions, Aeolus will be placed 200 miles (320 km) above the planet's surface in a pole-to-pole Sun-synchronous orbit. This means it will pass over the same parts of Earth at the same time every day and always keep the same orientation in relation to the Sun.

"This mission will provide much-needed data to improve the quality of weather forecasting as well as contributing to long-term climate research," Arianespace, the manufacturer of the Vega rocket on which Aeolus launched, stated on its website.

Scientists expect the satellite to be especially useful in measuring tropical winds, which are rarely observed directly and therefore not well mapped.

Aeolus will measure Earth's winds by beaming short pulses of ultraviolet radiation through Earth's atmosphere, then detecting back scatter from dust, gases, and water. The direction, speed, and distance winds traveled will be revealed by the delay between the outgoing pulses and the back scattered signal.

Data will be downloaded to a ground station in Svalbard, Norway, once every orbit.

"The Aelous mission will be a wonderful addition to our fleet of satellites that continually observe Earth, bringing us incredible insights into our planet, in particular into the complex world of atmospheric dynamics and climate processes--systems that not only affect our everyday lives but also have huge consequences for our future," said Paolo Ferri, ESA head of mission operations, in a public statement released last month.

The mission is planned to operate for three years.

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