A Belgian contribution to atmospheric and space science
The Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy (BIRA-IASB) contributes to the knowledge of the Earth’s atmospheric environment from the surface to the interplanetary space and in particular studies the evolution of the chemical composition of the atmosphere, in interaction with the dynamics and the structure of the atmosphere. In addition, it has a strong expertise in research on planetary and cometary atmospheres.
In parallel, BIRA-IASB’s objective is to develop, maintain and advance scientific services that are built on the knowledge and expertise acquired in aeronomy, for serving the scientific community, the society, and the policy makers.
Space is its major asset: it is a topic of study itself, and at the same time it is an essential environment to perform the studies in aeronomy.
Space science education and communication for future space jobs
BIRA-IASB also disseminates scientific information to the citizen and policy makers, and contributes to the education of the youth:
- by giving courses at universities and high-schools in Belgium and abroad
- by organizing scientific expositions
- by giving public lectures
In particular, BIRA-IASB contributes to the education of future space engineers and scientists for whom job opportunities are increasing nowadays due to a growing space industry and market.
In order to perform its mission and to achieve its objectives, BIRA-IASB collaborates with partners from the research and the commercial sector(industry) worldwide.
International partnerships for space and atmospheric research
BIRA-IASB plays an important role at the international level in the elaboration of research programmes and space missions related to aeronomy, as well as in the coordination of research consortia (e.g., atmosphere monitoring networks) and collaborative projects in the field of aeronomy.
It also cooperates with foreign partners in scientific domains in which the expertise does not exist in Belgium. The strong embedding of BIRA-IASB in the international arena for aeronomy research and services has been recognized in the Peer Review experts report(1) as a strong asset: “The Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy is a flagship of Belgian research. It is internationally well recognized and makes important contributions to atmospheric and space science nationally and internationally. It generates high-quality science and scientific services.” BIRA-IASB’s plan is to maintain this excellence, and to valorize it even better through services to regional, national and international public bodies and organisations.
(1) Evaluation of the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy - Management Summary, Technopolis |group| December 2016 Commissioned and funded by the Belgian Science Policy Office (BELSPO)
Importance of atmosphere and space science experts
BIRA-IASB has grown in an impressive way over the past 50 years, thanks to various factors:
- Growth of the importance of environmental issues and corresponding policies, at the national and international levels
- An increased importance of space research and related activities, and interest by decision makers, stakeholders, commercial companies and the general public
- Scientific freedom
- Internationally recognized expertise
- Flexibility for adapting to a changing research environment
- Capacity building through partnerships at the national and international level with research organizations and private companies, and through diversification of the research topics and skills
- Competitivity through dynamism, and quality and excellence of work
To maintain a healthy evolution of the Institute and to enable it to continue playing its unique role in Belgium, the above characteristics must be maintained. The current engineering and IT capacities must be strengthened in order to follow the pace of the evolution of the research.
Growing need for knowledge about global atmospheric changes
Many scientific questions remain unanswered. Many more requests for scientific knowledge and services come from our society and from the policy makers who are faced with questions about mitigation and adaptation to global changes.
The complexity of the Earth System requires:
- a multidisciplinary approach
- an appropriate infrastructure
- highly educated personnel.
The political approach should be favourable for maintaining the strength of the Institute, and for enabling it to evolve in line with the evolution of the research environment, by providing the appropriate autonomy and funding support.
The science of aeronomy complementary to meteorology and astronomy
Aeronomy is mostly dealing with the physico-chemistry of the atmospheres of solar system bodies, from the surface up into interplanetary space. Meteorology focuses on the physical parameters that determine weather and climate, like temperature, precipitation, winds, …, in the lowest few km of the atmosphere. Astronomy focuses on the behaviour of celestial bodies and the sun: their orbits, their interior, seismology, …
These distinctions are clearly visible in the mission statements of the three institutes at the Space Pole: the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium (KMI-IRM), the Royal Observatory of Belgium (KSB-ORB) and the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy (BIRA-IASB).
Therefore, from a scientific point of view, the research at BIRA-IASB is complementary to that at KMI-IRM and KSB-ORB, which is an asset for interesting collaborations, for which examples abound. The scientific collaborations among the three institutes at the Space Pole play already a strong role in several projects; especially in the Solar-Terrestrial Center of Excellence (STCE) where they work closely together and have gained additional international recognition.
A strong bridge between different communities in the Belgian research landscape
In the research landscape of Belgium, we observe that several universities host research teams dealing with one or another specific topic of interest for aeronomy, but
- these are either very limited in scope, e.g., cloud-climate interactions (KU Leuven) or monitoring of the atmosphere at one station with one single technique (ULiège), or
- they address more fundamental underpinning research, e.g., quantum chemistry calculations relevant to aeronomy (KU Leuven), or
- they focus on very applied research and regional scientific services e.g. research institutes like VITO (Vlaamse Instelling voor Technologisch Onderzoek).
None of them however has the capacity and expertise nor the continuity in staff to address all the challenges associated with the development of a space mission, from the very beginning to the end:
Scientific research objectives → mission and system requirements → mission design → instrument design & prototyping → operations → (raw) data acquisition → algorithm development → product generation → product validation → geophysical exploitation including modelling activities for research & service development.
Of course, to conduct a space mission, which is a large and long-term endeavour, BIRA-IASB must collaborate with research partners and industries. As such, it plays the role of a strong bridge between different communities (universities, research institutes and industries), and between Flanders and Wallonia.