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Advance warning


With climate change comes the increased incidence of hurricanes and other extreme weather events, and weather satellites can give countries the advance warning necessary to prepare for such events. Gordon Larkins, engineer and fellow shop steward, tells me that Thailand signed up to satellite disaster monitoring shortly after the December 2004 tsunami. Satellite technology is also a lifeline after a disaster strikes. Peter explains that extreme weather events often knock out phone lines on the ground. "How do you communicate then? Someone turns up with a box of satellite cellphones." When the immediate emergency is over, satellites still have a role to play, providing the reconstruction planners with important information about the extent and nature of the damage.

Astrium's next weather satellite, AEOLUS, will be even more sophisticated than ENVISAT. Alistair Scott, the plant's communications manager, describes it as "the next generation of everything". The stereoradar used by AEOLUS is so sensitive that it can tell the difference between corn and wheat, between tarmac and concrete. Named after the keeper of winds in classical mythology, AEOLUS specializes in monitoring wind speed and direction throughout the whole height of the Earth's atmosphere.

AEOLUS will also be able to spot human activity that contributes to climate change. It is sensitive enough to pinpoint areas of deforestation, recording evidence of climate-wrecking behaviour by individuals, companies or governments. Peter explains that such fine-grained detail is also very useful for managing resources on a smaller scale, even at the level of telling a farmer that there's something wrong with the crops in one field.

Peter is a Midlander with a gift for translating complex engineering concepts into plain English and making them interesting into the bargain. But he didn't always plan to become an engineer. His first job after leaving school was in the Warwickshire constabulary, but left the police force after a motorcycle accident. After that he briefly studied chemistry. Perhaps it was a fluke of geography that led Peter to a career in engineering: his family home in the East Midlands was near a nuclear power plant, so he took a job at the plant, discovered his flair for engineering and gained professional qualifications there.

His move to his current workplace was a matter of circumstances too. The company that ran the East Midlands plant began discussing a move to the north of England just as Peter and his wife-to-be were planning a wedding and a life together in the south. So Peter took a job at BAE Space & Communications, at the Stevenage site now known as Astrium. 1981 marked the beginning of both his marriage and his career at the plant.

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