Skip to main content

Birth of the Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy


While the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy is a relatively young one, it has a rich history, entangled and interwoven with the emergence of the space age. In this article, you'll find a short introduction to its beginnings, as well as a fragment of archival footage from the BRT (Belgische Radio- en Televisieomroep), and a video showing the Institute today.

BIRA-IASB and the Space Age

The birth of aeronomy can be traced back to the evening of October 4, 1957, when the Soviet Embassy in Washington was hosting a reception for the members of the International Geophysical Year (IGY) Committee, at which some very surprising news was announced: a Soviet satellite had just been put into orbit around the Earth. The surprise was shared worldwide: the news of the launch of Sputnik-1 had just ushered in the space age. The secretary general of this IGY was none other than Baron Marcel Nicolet, founder and first director of the Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy, not yet “royal” at that time.

The science of aeronomy first found its place in Belgium within a department of the Royal Meteorological Institute of Belgium (itself sprouting from the Royal Observatory of Belgium). It was on November 25, 1964, that the Belgian Official Journal (Moniteur belge/Belgisch Staatsblad) published a Royal Decree announcing that "the Aeronomy section was to be detached from the Royal Meteorological Institute under the name Belgisch Instituut voor Ruimte-Aeronomie/Institut d’Aeronomie Spatiale de Belgique".
The Royal Decree underlines that the Institute has as essential attributions the public service and research tasks in the domain of space aeronomy, and that these missions require the knowledge of data acquired with the help of rockets and artificial satellites in the framework of the physics and chemistry of the upper atmosphere and of the extra-atmospheric space.

For this goal, the Institute is therefore in charge of:

  • Acquiring and archiving information obtained with rockets and artificial satellites;
  • Providing this information to the people and organisations interested in space problems, and therefore build up documentation in this field;
  • Proceeding with the investigation of applied experimental methods as well as with the analysis of the acquired observations and their interpretation;
  • Carrying out the research needed for the improvement and application of calculation methods;
  • Accomplishing all the above-mentioned efforts in view of their implementation in the national or international framework;
  • Designing and setting, for these purposes, the necessary instrumentation;



Video fragment from 1997, made by the BRTN (Belgische Radio- en Televisieomroep Nederlandstalige Uitzendingen)


Today, the Royal Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy (BIRA-IASB) has somewhat broadened its field of research, to study the atmospheres of other solar system bodies (not only of the Earth but also of other planets such as Venus, Mars, Jupiter and even comets) and the impact of the Sun, nature and Man on atmospheric changes. It is the only centre of knowledge in Belgium that has the necessary skills to develop all the elements of a space mission, and to carry out a complete study of an aeronomic problem: the formulation of research objectives, the design of the instrument and the resulting space mission, the derivation of satellite data products, their validation and geophysical exploitation, including modelling and the development of services. All our activities have a common objective: to expand our knowledge of the atmospheres of celestial bodies. Better knowledge is essential to inform citizens and decision-makers, and to find answers to societal challenges concerning the natural environment we live in.

BIRA-IASB generates high-quality scientific services and products that meet the needs of the user community in all its research areas. Services such as volcanic emission warnings, global air quality analysis and forecasting, stratospheric ozone monitoring, solar UV index, accumulated radiation dose forecasting, space weather services, etc. are just a few examples. In addition to this, BIRA-IASB scientists also provide educational services to high schools and universities, and are involved in raising public awareness.



"Birth" exhibition of the Belgian Science Policy

This article was produced in the context of the virtual edition of the exhibition Science and Culture at the Royal Palace named "Birth" of the Belgian Science Policy.

News image 1
News image legend 1
Marcel Nicolet, founder and first director of the Belgian Institute for Space Aeronomy in 1964.
News image 2
News image legend 2
This article was produced in the context of the virtual edition of the exhibition Science and Culture at the Royal Palace named "Birth" of the Belgian Science Policy -