DLR Establishes Institute for Satellite Geodesy and Inertial Sensors

Bose-Einstein condensate in the Cold Atoms Lab. (Credit: NASA)
  • Bose-Einstein condensates, novel atomic clocks, laser and matter wave interferometry are promising quantum technologies for use in space.
  • Satellites modernized with quantum technology offer enormous potential for satellite-based earth observation, communication and navigation.
  • The new DLR institute will establish itself with up to 120 employees in the quantum quarter of the University of Hannover.

HANNOVER, Germany (DLR PR) — Quantum-based measurement technologies will revolutionize the sensor technology of satellites in the future. Quantum sensors based on Bose-Einstein condensates, novel atomic clocks, laser and matter wave interferometry are just some of the quantum technologies that are about to make the leap to routine use in space. In the course of a “second quantum revolution”, an unprecedented increase in the precision of measurement technology and sensors in space travel is taking place with previously untapped application possibilities. 

In the summer of 2019, the DLR Senate approved a project financed by the federal government and the state of Lower Saxony called the Institute for Satellite Geodesy and Inertial Sensors. In close cooperation with the Leibniz University Hannover (LUH) is the structure of the new institute with a total of seven departments in transition. By the end of the decade, it will establish itself with two new buildings and around 120 employees in the planned quantum district of the university.

“In the future, quantum technologies will become a key driver of innovation and growth worldwide,” emphasizes Prof. Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla, Chairwoman of the DLR Executive Board. “In Lower Saxony, it is thanks to the exemplary collaboration with the state and the University of Hannover that the new DLR Institute can make an important contribution to this future technology.”

“With the establishment of the DLR Institute for Satellite Geodesy and Inertial Sensors in Hannover, in conjunction with the Galileo Competence Center of the DLR in Oberpfaffenhofen and the DLR Institute for Quantum Technologies in Ulm a competence center for terrestrial and space-based quantum innovations,” says Prof. Hansjörg Dittus, DLR board member for space research and technology. “Satellites modernized with quantum technology are orders of magnitude more powerful than the current generation. It offers enormous potential for satellite-based earth observation, communication and navigation.

The Einstein Elevator at Leibniz University Hannover (Credit: M.Mathey/LU)

Inertial sensors can be acceleration or rotation rate sensors that are used, for example, for flight stabilization and navigation. Quantum sensors based on matter wave interferometry make it possible to measure rotation and acceleration with unprecedented long-term stability. Ultracold quantum gases such as Bose-Einstein condensates can be used for this. In the immediate vicinity of absolute temperature zero, an atomic cloud behaves like a single “giant atom”. This so-called Bose-Einstein condensate can be observed macroscopically. A further development of this technology promises future high-precision position control of satellites, for distance control during formation fl ights of a satellite swarm or for precise gravity field measurements of the earth or other celestial bodies.

Thomas Jarzombek, Federal Government Coordinator for German Aerospace, says: “Quantum sensors open up new possibilities. They measure physical quantities such as temperature, speed or electrical and magnetic fields with unimagined precision. They enable high-precision earth observation from space. In this way we can not only research climate change in more detail, the economic potential is also great. When looking for raw material deposits or for agriculture and forestry, to assess the quality of soils. Another area of ​​application for quantum sensors are new medical diagnosis and therapy tools. In order to further support top-level research in Germany in quantum technologies, the federal government is funding the new DLR Institute in Hannover.”

“Innovations in quantum technology and quantum sensors can make a major contribution to solving socially relevant challenges in areas such as climate change, water resources, energy supply, digitization, mobility and security – and also open up completely new perspectives in future space missions,” said Lower Saxony’s Minister of Science Björn Thümler. “From the state’s point of view, the establishment of the DLR Institute for Satellite Geodesy and Inertial Sensors in Hannover is a great success, because quantum technology will be further established and sustainably anchored as a future topic in Lower Saxony. The institute can build on an excellent research environment here, because the country has invested more than 220 million euros in the construction and operation of research laboratories as well as the setting up and training of scientific excellence in this research area in the past ten years. I look forward to the fact that the new institute will make an important contribution to the training of a new generation of quantum engineers. “

Broad partnerships

The activities of the new institute will be integrated into DLR-wide projects and collaborations with partners from research and industry in Germany, Europe and the world. For example, DLR is already working together with NASA in the BECCAL project, in which Bose-Einstein-Condensates (BEC) are examined under weightlessness in the Cold Atoms Lab (CAL) on the International Space Station ISS . A core partnership exists with Leibniz Universität Hannover, where the new institute will initially rent office and laboratory space before a new office and laboratory building will be built in the quarter by the end of the 2020s. 

As part of the planned “Optical Frequency Measurement” department, there is a strong cooperation with Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt (PTB) planned in Braunschweig. The “Relativistic Modeling” department will also be located at the DLR site in Bremen near the Center for Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM).

The President of the Leibniz University Hannover, Prof. Dr. Volker Epping emphasizes the importance of cooperation between LUH and non-university research institutions: “I am proud of this and am very pleased that, in addition to several other non-university partners, a DLR institute is now joining the LUH as a cooperation partner. This bundling of competencies will enable the institute, the university and the location to jointly develop the international radiance in the field of quantum technologies. I would like to thank those responsible and those involved who have actively promoted this settlement and made it possible, and I wish all scientists a successful start at DLR at Leibniz Universität Hannover. “

The current focus is on appointing the future head of the DLR Institute for Satellite Geodesy and Inertial Sensors and the first department heads. By the end of the year, 30 employees should already be working at the institute. The official opening of the institute is planned for the end of 2021.

“The first research work for future experiments on the ISS from 2026 has already started with the BECCAL project,” says Prof. Wolfgang Ertmer, founding director of the DLR Institute for Satellite Geodesy and Inertial Sensors. “The institute is also significantly involved in possible activities of the EU Commission on quantum gravimetric earth observation. In addition, the institute contributes to the competencies of the DLR in the field of quantum computing and cooperates in this area with the Hannover-based Quantum Valley Lower Saxony eV “

The state of Lower Saxony has already approved 12 million euros for the establishment of the DLR Institute for Satellite Geodesy and Inertial Sensors. In the future, the institute will be funded annually with 11 million euros from Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi), 890,000 euros from funds from the state of Lower Saxony and 220,000 euros from funds from the state of Bremen.