The return of German astronaut Alexander Gerst from the ISS shortly before Christmas has once again sparked the enthusiasm for space. For many, space exudes an enormous fascination. Where does this fascination come from?
It stems from the fact that with space flight it became possible for humans to leave Earth. That’s what’s so spectacular about the things that astronauts do. They see the earth as a whole from above. From that remote location you can appreciate the vulnerability of this tiny blue speck in the universe. This impression is reflected most vividly in the now iconographic photograph taken by the crew of Apollo 8, who captured the rise of the Earth above the horizon of the moon in 1968. This picture and Neal Armstrong’s first step from the Eagle Lunar Module on the surface of the moon in July 1969 are the images that epitomize the fascination of space most emotionally. Hardly anyone is left untouched.
After his return, Gerst shot a very emotional video in which he apologized to his unborn grandchildren for the way humanity has been treating the Earth. This emotional appeal was triggered by what is known as the overview effect – the view from space on all of humanity. Is it conceivable that with Earth observation satellite technology this effect could spread to all people, thus arousing greater awareness of our planet’s vulnerability?
The emotional element comes from the awareness of Earth’s vulnerability. And particularly the realization that we are all dependent on this one small dot in the vastness of space. In addition, knowledge and a realization of the things that we actually already know are rendered more tangible through a visual impression. This one single image of the Earth instantaneously shows what is at stake.
What is the greatest benefit of Earth observation?
You get the facts straight. Our culture is based on knowledge and on empiricism. You admit that you don’t know everything, that observation brings further insight and that this insight may possibly change your behavior. In this sense, Earth observation helps us to learn more about the Earth and perhaps find out more effectively and swiftly where it is heading. The deeper purpose of space activities in this case is to do this on a larger scale. And great authority can be derived from this. Because in the end it always boils down to proving or disproving forecasts or theories. To this end, you have to observe and collect facts. This applies at least to the environment and the climate. In the case of satellite-based reconnaissance, it is perhaps more important to depict reality in a confident and independent way in order to know what is true. Political and, if necessary, military decisions are then made on this basis.
Environmental monitoring, however, will be confronted with the question of how long-term developments can be assessed and influenced.
Which of these areas is most important for OHB?
This can be best described in waves. For a long time, satellite-based reconnaissance was the most important area for OHB. SAR-Lupe was a project that catapulted us into a new league. That was about 18 years ago. If you take a look inside our facilities at the moment, you will see that our activities mainly focus on satellites for weather observation. In the long term, the environment, including the weather and climate, will certainly be the most important area. Environmental monitoring from outer space will assume a dimension that we cannot even imagine at this point.
What do you mean by that?
Environmental monitoring will gain a permanence and complexity that will clearly distinguish it from all other areas. Reconnaissance involves three or four imaging sensors, such as high-resolution electronic optics, radar or infrared. Much more is involved when it comes to monitoring the environment. Indeed, I am convinced that, looking at the future, we may possibly even use sensors that require a satellite constellation of their own.
And what developments do you see for Earth observation as a whole?
It will advance disparately in a cycle of innovation. Reconnaissance tells us about the status quo. Weather observation provides information about today, tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. However, environmental monitoring will face the question as to how long-term developments are to be assessed and influenced.
Does this mean that OHB is making a contribution to protecting and preserving the planet in the long term?
Yes, a contribution. The purpose of all space activities is to derive benefits for the Earth. When we monitor the environment, we seek to preserve the Earth.
And the benefits for humanity? Do you think that they will be generally acknowledged in day-to-day life?
As far as weather observation is concerned, there’s no doubt that this is the case. That’s the most every-day form of information that you can currently get. And many older people still remember that for a long time the weather forecast had more to do with fortune-telling than with empiricism. Today it’s completely different. Weather forecasts have become reliable. They have become a science that provides precise predictions. In short, the weather is the most important day-to-day question that interests everyone. Everyone, in all cultures, in all situations, is interested in the weather.
The weather is the most important day-to-day question that interests everyone.
That sounds like a permanent business model.
This is what I firmly believe. Weather observation will still be very, very important for a very, very long time to come. Business in satellites in this area will benefit from this because weather observation satellites have become much better in recent decades. The question is always the same: What can we observe, what insights can we gain and what can we deduce from them? From this point of view, space activities have contributed much to weather forecasting; by the same token, however, the weather has also brought a lot to space activities.
The next generation of weather satellites, MTG, is currently being built at our facilities. What major advances have been achieved?
There are imager and sounder satellites. In the case of imager satellites, the aim is to significantly improve imaging capabilities. But the sounder satellites are where the real progress is being made. Profile measurements in the vertical plane are now possible, enabling the three-dimensional acquisition of atmospheric data. This innovation permits a more accurate long-term forecast and it will also be possible to predict local weather events with greater precision.
With Eaglet, we also have small satellites in our product range. What role will these small satellites be playing?
Hopefully, they will become an important addition to our current portfolio. As a result, we will be able to offer a very wide range of satellites from five kilograms to five tons. The small satellites have an advantage in that they can take measurements in swarms and thus in many places at the same time. This swarm intelligence generates a large picture of a given situation. For this reason I am convinced that these small satellites will find their market.
In November, at the ESA Council of Ministers conference, a decision will also be taken on the European Earth observation mission Copernicus. OHB is currently involved in the mission with a total of five feasibility studies. How important is Copernicus for OHB?
Very important. So far, we have only been involved in the program via a limited share of the Sentinel 4 project. There’s great future potential for us. From a strategic point of view, it is the largest new field for OHB that we intend to tap.
What is the goal for OHB with Copernicus?
We would like to become the system leader for two out of six possible new missions and take on a substantial role in two more, such as payload responsibility.
Another ambitious but very complex project is the EnMAP environmental satellite. There have been many mainly technical problems and delays. In the meantime, however, the project is nearing completion. Are you pleased?
Yes, because it shows that at our company we have the courage to tackle things that have never been done before and that we have the stamina to find solutions to enormous challenges. In this respect, I am very pleased, especially since a similar satellite – PRISMA from our subsidiary OHB Italia – has already been completed.
What was the challenging aspect of EnMAP?
The observation instrument of the satellite is a brand new development and from this point of view technically enormously challenging. The project was much more difficult than we had thought at the beginning. But it has developed enormously over the years. What was originally a simple small satellite has become a very complex medium-sized satellite both technically and financially.
EnMAP is a hyperspectral satellite. What does that mean?
Hyperspectral means that data is recorded in 20 to 250 spectral channels, ranging from ultraviolet wavelengths to long-wave infrared. Measurements from space were previously not possible with the accuracy that we can now achieve with EnMAP. There are only two projects in the world for which hyperspectral satellites of this complexity are being developed and built - and both of them are being executed at OHB.
We are leaders in the field of reconnaissance and, via the MTG program, one of the big players for weather satellites.
There are only two projects in the world for which hyperspectral satellites of this complexity are being developed and built - and both projects are being executed at OHB.
What does this technological lead mean strategically?
This technology delivers high-quality data for environmental monitoring. Hyperspectral technology allows conclusions to be drawn about dynamic environmental influences. It is about being able to make qualitative statements about, for example, the development of soils or vegetation.
So does this mean that the more Earth observation data is used for everyday and even economic purposes, the more indispensable the service will be seen as being?
That’s right. The ideal situation for us is indeed the permanent monitoring of the Earth’s environment, climate and safety. Because then we are part of the infrastructure, a kind of knowledge infrastructure that makes data available around the clock.
What projects are the most important for OHB in the area of reconnaissance?
SAR-Lupe has been running very successfully in full operational mode for over eleven years without even the slightest failure. The follow-up system SARah is currently being implemented and has reached an advanced stage of development. We also have two important projects for Germany and Luxembourg in the field of high-resolution electro-optical reconnaissance. We would also like to work with the Italian government on our Eaglet series of small satellites. Eaglet 1 was successfully launched at the end of 2018 and Eaglet 2 is currently being built for the Italian Ministry of Defense.
How many of these small satellites are possible in an ideal situation?
Around 60. Eaglet 1 is in orbit and transmitting images, the contract for Eaglet 2 has been awarded and negotiations are currently ongoing for Eaglet 3 and 4. We hope to get this fleet of four demonstration satellites into space to prove that the concept works.
What potential do you look at when you consider the environment and climate?
As far as weather satellites are concerned, we are looking at the Imager and Sounder satellites that are a part of the MTG project. Our third contribution in the weather segment is the microwave imager (MWI), which will be assembled by OHB Italia as a further payload for the future polar-orbiting European weather satellites. With respect to the environmental satellites, I would mention Sentinel 4, our contributions to the FLEX payload, EnMap, PRISMA and the new Copernicus missions. Our main focus is of course on the upcoming Copernicus missions. Being a part of this project on a reasonable scale is the most important thing for us.
How do you define OHB in the field of Earth observation?
We can be pretty self-confident in this respect. We are leaders in the field of reconnaissance and, via the MTG program, one of the big players for weather satellites. As far as Copernicus is concerned, we’re the new kid on the block. As I said, we want to have a say in this, moving forward.
Born in 1962, Marco R. Fuchs studied law in Berlin, Hamburg and New York. He worked as an attorney in New York and Frankfurt am Main from 1992 to 1995. In 1995, he joined OHB, the company that his parents had built up. He has been Chief Executive Officer of OHB SE and OHB System AG since 2000. Marco R. Fuchs is married and has two children.