André Monfils, pioneer of the Liege space optics programme.

By Théo Pirard

Fifty years ago, in the circle of Professor Pol Swings (1906-1983), André Monfils, a young teacher at the Astrophysics Institute of Liège, gathered a team of researchers and technicians around him to carry out experiments by means of optical instruments. This team, known under the name of IAL space, grew to become the CSL (Centre Spatiale de Liege) at the heart of a “spatiopole”.


AMonfils ENAndré Monfils, who will celebrate his 86th birthday in July, is the “father” of space optics in Liège. The association Promoptica, which he created and led, paid homage to him at the beginning of spring at the Liège space centre. The key role played by Professor Monfils was recalled by his successor at the head of IAL Space, Claude Jamar, who is the current chief executive of the company AMOS. Professor Monfils’ role enabled the University of Liège to acquire its reputation for experiments in space with optical systems.

Originally from Blankenberge, where he was born on the 25th of July 1925, André Monfils obtained a degree in Chemistry at the ULB but it was at the University of Liège that he completed his doctoral thesis in physics. This thesis, which he defended in November 1952, was the opportunity to specialise in the science of molecular spectroscopy which was taking off at the time. His work in infrared, Raman and acoustic spectroscopy and nuclear quadrupole resonance has been the subject of some thirty publications that constitute works of reference. In the mid-fifties, he was at Harvard and Ottowa for research activities under the patronage of Gerhard Herzberg, the winner of the Nobel Prize for physics in 1971. With him, he co-signed articles on the molecules of Hydrogen and Deuterium and knowledge relating to them represented a major step in astrophysics.

On his return to the country in 1958, André Monfils offered his services to the International Geophysics Year (1957-1958). Together with Pol Swings, he contributed to the excellence of Belgian research. It was during this period that the space age began with the launch of the first satellites in the USSR (Sputnik) and the US (Explorer). It then became possible to conduct an “in situ” study of the upper atmosphere of the Earth and observe the effects of solar radiation on its behaviour. Europe, which had a duty to be involved in this with its expertise, had difficulties in taking firm and coordinated decisions. But Belgium showed its determination to oversee the development and triumph of this European cooperation in space. From 1960, the two professors Swings and Monfils championed this cause: they participated in the setting up of a European spatial science programme by means of rocket-probes and satellites.

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