BERLIN (Reuters) - Europe plans to launch a satellite on Wednesday that will use new laser technology to measure the winds sweeping across Earth and help scientists forecast changes in weather more accurately.
The Aeolus mission will provide scientists with data on winds in remote areas, such as over oceans, that they have not been able to get from weather balloons, ground stations and airplanes but which are crucial to predicting changes in weather.
"Forecasting is of course still limited, but then we will certainly be able to understand the processes better that lead to extreme weather phenomena," Paolo Ferri, the European Space Agency's (ESA) head of mission operations, told Reuters TV ahead of the launch.
Many scientists warn that global warming will result in more frequent and intense heatwaves, precipitation and storms, causing billions of euros in damage and costing thousands of human lives every year.
Better weather forecasts will allow scientists to warn the population when hurricanes are heading their way and predict weather patterns such as El Niño, which can cause crop damage, fires and flash floods.
The Aeolus mission - named after a character of Greek mythology who was appointed keeper of the winds - is scheduled to blast off from Europe's space port in Kourou, French Guiana, on board a Vega rocket at 2120 GMT (6.20 pm local time) on Wednesday.
The launch was pushed back by a day from Tuesday due to winds over the space port.
Aeolus will be equipped with an instrument dubbed Aladin, short for Atmospheric Laser Doppler Instrument, that will use a powerful laser, a large telescope and a very sensitive receiver to probe the atmosphere.
The laser system is designed to generate a series of short light pulses in the ultraviolet spectrum, which is invisible to the naked eye, and then collect light that is backscattered from particles of gas and dust and droplets of water in the atmosphere.
The time between sending the light pulse and receiving the reflected signal indicates the position of particles in the atmosphere and allows Aladin to track the speed at which they move in the wind.
Scientists hope the Aeolus mission will deliver the first set of data to a ground station in Svalbard, Norway, early next year and keep operating for around three to four years.
At that point, Aeolus is expected to run out of fuel as its relatively low altitude of around 320 kilometres (200 miles) means it is exposed to friction from Earth's atmosphere, requiring it to correct its position frequently.
(Reporting by Maria Sheahan; Editing by Douglas Busvine, Richard Balmforth)