Pierre Touboul passed away

Pierre Touboul was a researcher at ONERA, specialist in space physics. Internationally recognized, his research had led to the creation of unique world-class devices for measuring gravity and acceleration in space. Pierre passed away on Monday 15th of February.

24 February 2021

Graduated from ISAE-SUPAERO, PierreTouboul joined ONERA in 1982, where he spent his entire scientific career. He quickly interested in space electrostatic accelerometers with spatial gravimetry as the first application. In particular, he studied the Aristoteles project with ESA, which became the GOCE space mission with the launch of the satellite in 2009. It is today the most precise mission for the mapping of the Earth's gravity field, thanks to these accelerometers.

Before GOCE, developments in accelerometry within the framework of Aristoteles made it possible to fly the ASTRE instrument three times on the Columbia shuttle in the mid-1990s. The quality of the obtained measurements impressed NASA and ESA who saw there an opportunity to develop new missions in space geodesy.

Pierre Touboul lead his team by relying on this unique know-how in the world to contribute to the success of GFZ/DLR (CHAMP) and NASA/JPL/DLR/GFZ (GRACE) missions, which satellites were respectively launched in 2000 and 2002. These successes earned him the Marcel Dassault Prize from the French Academy of Sciences in 2004 and the Grand Prix from the French Air and Space Academy in 2010.

The scope of space electrostatic accelerometers does not limit to gravimetry. Aiming for accessible ultimate performance, Pierre Touboul has spent much of his career developing much more ambitious missions for fundamental physics. Opening the way to new physics, enriching human knowledge were a real passion for him. He thus contributed to the construction of the LISA project for the detection of gravitational waves in space in the 1990s until the definition of the inertial sensor taken up in 2000 by the University of Trento (Italy) which carried out the mission of LisaPathfinder technology demonstration launched in 2017.

ONERA's scientific publications related to the MICROSCOPE experiment

  • 19 publications since 2015
  • 59 co-authors
  • 46% of publications in the top 10 world journals
  • 21% of these publications are among the 10% most cited in their discipline

Finally, Pierre Touboul left a historical imprint on the test of the principle of equivalence, which is the founding principle of the theory of general relativity. After several international contributions in Step, QuickStep, MiniStep, Ste-Quest mission proposals, he convinced CNES to carry out the MICROSCOPE mission for which he was the scientific manager (Principal Investigator). The works started in 2000, and the MICROSCOPE satellite was launched in 2016 with the instruments designed and manufactured at ONERA. As head of the scientific committee, he guided the scientific mission center based at ONERA and published in 2017 the best test result of the principle of equivalence ever achieved. He leaves us as the latest even better results are being published. This scientific success was once again awarded the Servant Grand Prix from the Academy ofScience in 2018.

Pierre's scientific and managerial qualities allowed him to lead the ONERA’s Physics and Measures Department until 2011, then the scientific directorate of the ONERA’s Physics branch until 2016. From 2013 to 2015, he also served as interim general scientific director and contributed to build the first strategic scientific plan of ONERA. Pierre Touboul was knighted in the French Order of Merit in 2014.

All those who worked with him will remember his scientific rigor, his energy and above all his constant humor.

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