Radar Eyes in the Sky – revolutionary Technology for the Earth and the Environment

(f.l.t.r.) Dr.-Ing. Gerhard Krieger, Prof. Dr.-Ing. habil. Alberto Moreira, Dr.-Ing. Manfred Zink

Prof. Dr.-Ing. habil. Alberto Moreira (Spokesperson)
Dr.-Ing. Gerhard Krieger
Dr.-Ing. Manfred Zink

Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt DLR, Oberpaffenhofen

Up-to-date information on what is happening on Earth is becoming ever more important – for instance, to direct the flow of traffic intelligently, to track down pollution, or to keep an eye on active volcanoes. How can this data be collected on a large scale and accurately in remote regions of the Earth?

Prof. Dr.-Ing. habil. Alberto Moreira, Dr.-Ing. Gerhard Krieger, and Dr.-Ing. Manfred Zink know the answer: they have developed a satellite duo with sharp radar eyes that sets their sights on the Earth from outer space – and is capable of mapping every corner of the planet in detail and in 3-D. To do so, radar sensors scan the Earth’s surface with microwaves. This provides a clear image of cities, forests, mountains and oceans even at night or through cloud cover. Alberto Moreira is the head of the DLR Microwave and Radar Institute and Radar where Gerhard Krieger and Manfred Zink work as department heads.

The list of applications in which geo-information is playing an ever more important role is long: for example, data can be used for traffic flow monitoring. Geo-information plays a role in ferreting out illegal clearing of trees in the rain forest or to check whether farmers are keeping to guidelines set for planting. Using geo-information, planners locate the optimum sites for offshore windparks, climatologists understand changes in glaciers and ocean currents due to climate change, relief missions are supplied with up-to-date information on crisis situations, even fissures or shifting on the slopes of volcanoes can be detected – as an early warning of an imminent eruption of the fire-spewing mountain.

Radar satellites are the first choice in these applications. The nominated scientists succeeded in developing the technology that culminated in 2010 in the satellite pair TanDEM-X being put into orbit in a sophisticated formation flight and providing a unique 3-D images of the entire world. In addition to creating the concept for the formation flight, the scientists also laid the foundation for the joint transmitting and receiving of radar pulses that can be synchronized to within less than one trillionth of a second in accuracy. They have already an ingenious digital antenna for the next generation of radar satellites – it increases the imaging performance a hundredfold compared to conventional systems. This opens the door to a radio observatory in space capable of recording the dynamics of the earth and environment and providing comprehensive high-resolution coverage in realtime.

The radar mission TanDEM-X developed by DLR and Astrium GmbH, an aerospace company, in a public private partnership currently has no competitors and has tremendous commercial potential. In Germany, more than 200 new jobs have already been created by the production and sale of radar images. Forecasts predict double-digit growth rates for the annual turnover with radar data. Because worldwide demand for current geo-information is rapidly growing at government agencies, companies, and scientific institutions. With the many possible applications of radar remote sensing, numerous new jobs will be created in Germany and a value-adding chain similar to that in satellite communications and navigation will be set in motion.