The UK will lead the development of the world’s first ever satellite to study the Earth’s wind patterns from space. The European Space Agency (ESA) today awarded the prime contract to EADS Astrium (UK), to build the Aeolus satellite.

The satellite, due to be launched on a three-year mission in 2007, will further our knowledge of the Earth’s atmosphere and weather systems by being the first to provide detailed global surveillance of winds from space. At present, there are large areas where wind profiles are not regularly observed – a major deficiency in the Global Observing System. Aeolus data could lead to major improvements in forecasters’ predictions of extreme weather conditions, including major storms.

Colin Hicks, Director General of the British National Space Centre, welcomed ESA’s decision to award the contract to a UK firm:

“We are pleased that the UK will lead this important mission. It is recognition of the world-class expertise we possess in building satellites in this country.

“Aeolus is a historic opportunity to provide the world’s first satellite designed to specifically profile wind from space and will give forecasters an important edge in predicting extreme weather conditions.”

Colin Paynter, Managing Director of EADS Astrium (UK), based in Stevenage, Hertfordshire, said:

“We are extremely pleased that the UK arm of EADS Astrium has been selected to lead this exciting programme. It is expected that a very significant amount of the spacecraft cost will be spent in the UK.

“We have been working on the Aeolus programme for many years with colleagues from ESA, NERC and BNSC and we must thank them for their confidence in our ability to manage such a complex mission.”

EADS Astrium (France) will build the on board instrument ALADIN – Atmospheric
Laser Doppler Instrument, and EADS Astrium (Germany) will procure platform electrical subsystems as subcontractors to their UK sister company.

Aeolus data is expected to improve weather forecasts, sometimes significantly. It will be placed in a Sun-synchronous orbit at an altitude of 400 km, enabling it to collect information from anywhere on the planet. The ALADIN Lidar (laser detection and radar) instrument will create a wind profile showing the relative strength and direction of winds at different altitudes.

This is a major step forward in wind analysis. The only wind profile data available now is from weather balloons, from aircraft and from fixed ground based radars. This means there are huge gaps in profiling over oceans and tropical regions. Measurements from Aeolus, which will provide data on a global basis, are equivalent to launching one balloon every 28 seconds for three years.

Martin Jones, Head of Space Programmes at the Met Office, said the satellite instrument could become an important new tool for weather forecasters in the UK as well as globally.

“Direct measurements of wind over the oceans and the tropics could give us the next breakthrough in improving our hurricane and typhoon forecasts. They could also give us earlier warning of windstorms developing in the Atlantic and affecting the UK. We hope this demonstration mission will point the way for future operational wind-measuring satellites.”

The cost of the Aeolus mission is around 300 million euros over approximately eight years. The UK share of ESA’s Earth Observation Envelope Programme supporting Aeolus is 19.4% – 57.5 million euros. The UK’s Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is responsible for Britain’s subscription to ESA’s environmental science programmes.

Professor Jose Achache, Director of Earth Observation Programmes at ESA, said:

“Aeolus will be the first wind-lidar in space. It will measure wind profiles on a global scale, which have been requested by meteorologists for a long time. Actually, the World Meteorological Organisation has given sensors to measure global wind profiles a top priority.

“The wind-lidar mission has been studied for about 20 years now, but technology was not yet matured enough for an implementation. Finally Europe has developed the demanding technology and thus can go ahead with the full-scale satellite programme. There are still many technological challenges on the way, but I am confident that our space industry will master them successfully.

“Aeolus is planned as a pre-operational spacecraft to demonstrate the actual utility of global wind profiles for weather prediction and other atmospheric science uses. We expect that a series of Aeolus-type spacecraft will follow to suit the operational use for routine weather forecasting.”