Skip to content

Institute for Space Aeronomy promoting research among users and society

Officially recognized by the international scientific community since 1954, aeronomy is the science of terrestrial, planetary and cometary atmospheres. A discipline with a bright future to which the Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy (BIRA-IASB) provides its dynamics and know-how.

Combining scientific research and the development of scientific services destined for society and users, this is the credo of the BIRA-IASB, which intends to place fundamental research in the service of society. More than ever, research is turning to valorization; valorization that takes into account potential economic and social applications of the works carried out.

On this basis, the BIRA-IASB has developed two major research domains. The first one involves the chemistry and physics of planetary atmospheres, more precisely of the Earth, Venus, Mars and cometary atmospheres. Resolutely multidisciplinary, aeronomy tries to better understand the evolution of the chemical composition of the atmospheres (gas content and other components) and therefore takes its place at the centre of current concerns about climate change, air pollution and air quality. Aeronomy therefore aims to grasp the complexity of the processes at work in the upper atmosphere.

The second research domain conducted by the BIRA-IASB involves interactions between the sun and the earth and interplanetary space plasma. For that matter, space exploration fully benefits from the research carried out in this area: the propagation of radio waves in the ionosphere, dangerousness of the radiation belts for astronauts and electronic equipment on spacecrafts, etc. Similarly, telecommunications are at the centre of research conducted on the impact of atmospheric braking and of magnetic storms on the course of satellites.

Aware of the practical use of its work, the BIRA-IASB has therefore developed, in addition to the base of valorization scientific research, an approach with a double objective: helping researchers to devise applications that can be used by the greatest numbers and emphasizing, among politicians and the general public, the importance of public investment in research, and this in balance with fundamental research.

State-of-the-art observation technology

Aeronomy deploys observation methods on Earth as well as in space: ground stations, stratospheric balloons, satellites, shuttles and space stations. At the same time, BIRA-IASB researchers take part in major international programmes for the measurement of UV rays, ozone, etc. In full development, space instruments are the subject of European collaboration in the framework of the European Space Agency (ESA) and also in a bilateral framework.

Spectroscopy, observations through occultation, measurements in the laboratory and modeling work, complete the range of tools used. In fact, laboratory models re-creating a virtual atmosphere are required for the proper interpretation of teledetection measurements, and, consequently, for the determination of measured gases and aerosols.
Capitalizing on the most advanced calculation methods, these models are scientifically and operationally qualified to predict evolution of medium- and long-term changes: a major asset to define the steps to be taken in the fight against global warming and to become a major player in key sectors such as “chemical weather”.

A range of scientific services in full expansion

Internationally recognized for its global competences in terms of atmospheric research, the BIRA-IASB is strongly developing its research on the action of sun rays, largely responsible for ionization and dissociation phenomena that can be observed in the planetary atmospheres. Satellites and airplanes are also highly affected by the eruptions of ionizing solar particles: in this respect, BIRA-IASB space-weather expertise will lead to significant commercial prospects.

This is precisely the objective of the valorization of research in atmospheric chemistry and physics: by making use of its instruments able to measure ozone, UV rays or air quality. The BIRA offers a range of concrete and easy-to-use products. This opening strategy is supported by the B.USOC (Belgian User Support and Operation Centre), in charge of meeting expectations of potential users in search of microgravity applications. For its users, the international space station (ISS) is the preferred site for the experimentation with measurement instruments in a microgravity environment.

Figure:Visible UV measurement instruments at the Uccle station

Being linked to NASA, the B.USOC provides for the preparation of experiments, the operational nature of the instruments used and ensures their promotion in view of their use on board satellites. This new prospect will boost the B.USOC’s essential role in the promotion strategy of the BIRA-IASB.

Multiple partnerships

Very involved in international scientific research networks, the BIRA-IASB takes active part in the activities of the European Space Agency and contributes to the formulation of new proposals in the context of the European framework programmes for research and technological development. Similarly, the BIRA-IASB is an active party in the second leading European Commission project: GMES (Global Monitoring for Environment and Security), of which the fourth pilot project, focused on the atmosphere, should allow to provide politicians and the general public with services measuring ozone, aerosols, the UV index, air quality, etc.

The BIRA-IASB is developing these products in cooperation with industrialists and numerous Belgian universities (University of Liège, UCL, KU Leuven, Universities of Ghent and Antwerp, etc.).

At a time when issues linked to climate change and to the impact of human activities on the atmosphere have become critical, the BIRA-IASB’s mission is to initiate young people in the working of the atmosphere and more generally to give rise to scientific vocations in order to better prepare the future.

Figures: ENVISAT and Jungfraujoch Station

Belgian Institute For Space Aeronomy
Ringlaan 3, Avenue Circulaire
B-1180 Brussels
Tel.: +32(0)2 373 04 04
Fax: +32(0)2 374 84 23