Even before the TV show “Star Trek” hit our screens, we were aware of the “infinite depths” of space. Long before Star Trek we wanted to know more about this “final frontier”. Exploring unknown worlds, understanding how the universe is put together, mining raw materials on other planets and perhaps even finding evidence of alien life – all this has always fascinated us. Humanity has always been driven by the desire to find answers to these questions and to pursue its exploratory spirit.
With their determination to find out more, these pioneers are driving space exploration, gaining new insight into the earth and space. During the Renaissance (15th and 16th century), pioneers of astronomy such as Nicolaus Copernicus, Johannes Kepler and Galileo Galilei toppled the geocentric view of the world thanks to their observations of the celestial bodies. It is the earth that orbits the sun and not the other way around, resulting in a heliocentric view of the world.
“In the 16th century, the earth was believed to be the center of the universe. Thanks to astrology, we have discovered step by step that the earth is a normal planet in a normal solar system in a normal galaxy,”
It was not until the 1960s that we left the earth’s atmosphere
Although we have been engaging in space exploration for many centuries, it was not until the 1960s that we were able to physically leave the earth and thus free ourselves from the constraints of astronomy. Human and non-human space flight ushered in a new era of space exploration. For the first time, we were able to escape the earth’s atmosphere with satellites, space probes and rockets. This substantially reduced the distortion in observations caused by such factors as x-ray and infrared radiation.
At the same time, we are now also able to fly directly to other celestial bodies in unmanned missions or, in the case of the moon, in manned missions. At the same time, increasingly larger and more precise telescopes are being built on the earth to gain further insight into the universe.
SPACE EXPLORATION EXPERTISE AND ITS BENEFITS FOR HUMANITY
The possibilities afforded by space flight have given space exploration new impetus. Since then, our knowledge of the universe has grown exponentially. Space exploration has become more multi-faceted, complex and demanding. Yet, space exploration is not an end in itself. On the contrary, it aims to derive benefits for humanity. And this is OHB’s philosophy.
Accordingly, satellites and space probes are fitted with scientific instruments collecting data on remote planets, moons and even asteroids. Comparative analyses of this data allow researchers to better understand the origins of the earth, for example, allowing them to make reliable projections for current climate calculation models.
One thing we can say for sure is that the exploration of space is complex and calls for new technologies. As an aerospace company, OHB along with its subsidiaries has been engaged in space research and exploration for more than two decades. Via numerous studies and projects aimed at finding out more about Mars, the moon, Jupiter and exoplanets, OHB has accumulated the expertise required to support the major space agencies’ exploration missions. It has been an acknowledged partner in the execution of complex exploration missions for many years.
CAN WE MAKE USE OF RAW MATERIALS GAINED FROM SPACE, IS LIFE POSSIBLE IN SPACE AND HOW DID THE UNIVERSE ARISE?
One core question being addressed by space exploration is whether we can make use of the resources of other planets or asteroids as a source of raw materials. Research under space conditions is also highly relevant – particularly for life sciences. This is because one day humans will (have to) leave the earth. This is why studies on astronauts’ immune systems, research into ecological cycles in bio-regenerative life support systems and the development of innovative energy systems are crucial for long-term space travel.
Great expertise is also required for peering into space from the earth’s surface. OHB subsidiary MT-Mechatronics supplies components for many optical and radio telescopes. In addition to furthering a basic understanding of how the universe arose, the telescopes also search for traces of alien life forms.
THESE TECHNOLOGIES ARE RELEVANT FOR SPACE EXPLORATION
If you decide to focus on space exploration and utilization, you must engage in intensive studies as a basis for defining a scenario that provides solid underpinnings for the basic feasibility and specific execution of the project. These studies are the first and important step towards working on large exploration projects. For OHB, the main purpose of these studies is to lay the technological foundations for missions to distant planets. Different technologies can help to drive forward the exploration of space.
Exploration close up: orbiter technology
Humanity is able to make a significant step forward in exploration by conducting research into planets, moons and asteroids at close quarters. This is done using space probes that orbit the celestial body in question. The great challenge here is the vast distances that must be covered. At the same time, the systems must operate under extreme conditions in space to ensure that the data is transmitted reliably back to the earth.
OHB Sweden is at the cutting edge of work on European orbiter technology. In 2003, it sent SMART-1 (Small Missions for Advanced Research in Technology), the first European space probe, to the moon. The purpose was to test a solar/electrically operated ion propulsion system and new navigation and communications technology and to conduct experiments on the chemical composition of the lunar surface. This ESA mission led to an important new understanding of the origin of the moon more than four billion years ago.
Safe entry into the atmosphere: entry technology
Whenever we travel into space and journey to unknown celestial bodies, we come up against the challenge of how to enter the atmosphere safely. Atmospheric conditions vary according to the planet or moon and its rotation speed. The technical infrastructure of spacecraft must withstand these conditions so that they are able to enter the atmosphere safely and carry out their tasks.
Happy landings: technology for precise touchdowns
The surface of the earth is largely known to us. For the most part, experts know precisely where and how spacecraft should lift off and land. In the case of any doubt, this can be tested relatively easily. However, testing this on moon, for example, is an entirely different proposition. Generally speaking, landing safely and without damage on other planets, moons or asteroids is a difficult discipline posing real challenges for engineers. This is because they must contend with different gravitational forces, surfaces and temperatures or winds that are difficult to calculate. All this makes high technological demands of the systems. OHB has repeatedly been at the cutting edge here in many studies and projects.
FOR COMPLEX TASKS WITHOUT ASTRONAUTS: ROBOTICS
Robots and robotic elements play a crucial role in unmanned missions in particular. Rovers on the surface of the planets or the moon and modules fitted to space stations must take samples or perform analyses automatically. Looking forward, robots will operate even more reliably and be able to perform increasingly complex tasks.
OHB System AG was at the cutting edge of this development with the first German robotics experiment in space in the form of the 50-centimeter articulated-arm robot ROKVISS (Robotics Component Verification on board the ISS). Between 2005 and 2010, ROKVISS completed around 500 tests on board the International Space Station ISS. The aim of the project commissioned by the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and planned and developed in Germany was to test new robot hardware and powerful control designs in real mission operation. Looking forward, this technology will assist astronauts in completing their complicated work in space and help to repair satellites in orbit. OHB System AG was responsible for the development and construction of the experimental computer, the power supply system and the technical support for DLR, as well as being the main contractor for the communications infrastructure.
Bringing samples back to earth
Lunar rocks had previously already been brought back to Earth by the Apollo astronauts. However, one of the main goals of current space exploration is to bring rocks from Mars, other planets or asteroids back to the earth. ESA and NASA have been working on this for many years, commissioning many studies. OHB has participated in these, performing differing tasks. Examples include ESA’s Mars Sample Return or Marco Polo-R projects. In the latter project, samples are to be collected from an asteroid close to the earth and brought back.
SELECTED OHB EXPLORATION PROJECTS AND MISSIONS
Scrutinizing the red planet: ExoMars
The ExoMars program (exobiology on Mars) conducted by ESA and the Russian space agency Roskosmos aims at determining whether life once existed on the red planet or continues to do so. A further purpose is to identify potential hazards for a manned landing on Mars.
The ExoMars program is divided into two missions. Mission 1 commenced in 2016 on board a Proton launcher, which lifted off from the Baikonur space center. It is composed of a Mars orbiter and a landing module. The main purpose is to test the technologies required for a landing.
OHB System AG supplied the structure and thermal and propulsion systems – and thus the heart of the Mars orbiter. The satellite is transmitting images of Mars and taking measurements. A further purpose is to analyze the Martian atmosphere for any traces of methane gas. Scientists want to find out if these traces have geological or biological origins. In addition, the orbiter is acting as the data relay station for Mission 1 and 2. The Schiaparelli lander was lost due to a software error but was still able to deliver valuable data for the follow-up ExoMars mission during its descent.
ExoMars mission 2 is scheduled for 2020. OHB System is the principal contractor for the carrier, which will be transporting a surface platform and a rover to Mars, as well as numerous instruments fitted to the rover. In October 2016, ESA awarded Antwerp Space a contract for the lander radioscience (LaRa) instrument for the surface platform.
LaRa will be responsible for delivering precise measurements of the alignment and rotation of Mars, thus contributing to a better understanding of its interior structure. In addition, the instrument can examine the effects of the movement of ice from the polar caps on the rotation of Mars.
OHB also makes valuable contributions to space exploration on board the ISS, particularly the European space laboratory COLUMBUS. Among other things, OHB System AG built and tested the cable harness made up of eleven main elements as part of the technical infrastructure. In addition, it has developed many experimental facilities - for example, the European Physiology Module (EPM), a facility for conducting physiological experiments in space, and the Flywheel astronaut fitness device. OHB System is the only space company to be materially involved in all of the research modules fitted to the COLUMBUS laboratory.
Headed for the gaseous giant Jupiter: JUICE space probe
JUICE stands for JUpiter ICy moons Explorer and is the first major ESA mission under its Cosmic Vision 2015–2025 program. The space probe will launch in 2022, reaching Jupiter in 2029 to observe the gaseous planetary giant and its three largest moons – Ganymede, Callisto and Europa – in detail. OHB subsidiary Antwerp Space has been awarded a contract for the development, integration and testing of the entire communications subsystem before it is installed on the JUICE space probe. This communications subsystem will be responsible for maintaining the communications link with the earth throughout the entire mission.
Searching for dark matter: the EUCLID research satellite
Dark matter and dark energy constitute roughly 95% of the entire density of the universe. And yet very little is known about their nature. One of the greatest scientific challenges is to find out more about these mysterious forms of matter and energy and thus to widen our understanding of the physical world. Fitted with a telescope and instruments, the ESA research satellite EUCLID will be uncovering some of the secrets of dark matter and dark energy from 2020. It will be capturing the light of distant galaxies to measure the expansion of the universe. In this way, it will be possible to create far more precise models of the development of the universe and explore questions pertaining to the influence of dark matter and dark energy. OHB Sweden is supplying the chemical propulsion system and parts of the micro and propulsion system for EUCLID.
The world’s largest radio telescope: ALMA in Chile
Located in the Chilean Atacama Desert at an elevation of around 5,000 meters above sea level, 66 high-precision antennas have been operating since 2013 to find out more about the origins of the planets and stars. ALMA (Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array) is the world’s largest radio telescope and is operated by the European Southern Observatory (ESO) among others. OHB subsidiary MT Mechatronics has played a crucial role in the assembly, activation and delivery of the 25 European satellites.