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TerraSAR-X is a relatively inexpensive radar imaging satellite developed by the German space agency DLR. (credit: DLR)

Technical ego: India and Germany in space

On December 3 the American Institute for Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Baltimore Section held a talk at the Johns Hopkins University’s Applied Physics Laboratory titled “Space Program Updates: Germany and India.” The featured speakers were Counsellor Devi Prasad Karnik of the Indian Consulate, and Dr. Jürgen Drescher of the German Center for Aeronautics and Spaceflight. The two men discussed the current activities and future goals of their respective space programs.

India in space

The first speaker was Devi Prasad Karnik, who first started working for the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) in 1984 and now represents ISRO in the United States. Karnik provided a detailed overview of India’s space program that was quite similar to a panel discussion on the same topic held in nearby Washington in October (see: “The new path to space: India and China enter the game”, The Space Review, October 13, 2008). India’s space research has transitioned through four eras: the initiation phase of the 1960s, the experimental phase of the 1970s and ’80s, the operational phase of the 1990s, and the expansion phase of today, which is gaining the country more attention on the international stage.

Unlike the space programs of the Cold War superpowers, or even Japan, Europe, and China, India’s space program was always very closely tied to the developing country’s social needs. Satellites were developed to provide communications and telemedicine with isolated areas, weather forecasting, and remote sensing for vital needs such as agriculture assessment.

Unlike the space programs of the Cold War superpowers, or even Japan, Europe, and China, India’s space program was always very closely tied to the developing country’s social needs.

Today the Indian space program is funded at 40.74 billion rupees, or over $800 million, and includes 16,500 people spread all over the country. Karnik showed a map of India indicating the various space-related research centers located throughout the country. There are a large number of them well dispersed geographically. Although Karnik did not discuss it, an interesting question would be the degree to which the location of these research centers was intended to spur local economic development. Lyndon Johnson sought to site NASA centers in the American south in order to spur economic development. Has India followed a similar approach?

Much of Karnik’s talk covered the same ground as the October panel discussion in Washington. However, when Karnik took questions his responses provided additional insight into India’s space program, including the impetus behind its newest developments. One questioner asked if India’s space program was publicly popular because of its linkage to social problems, and also asked if projects like the Chandrayaan lunar spacecraft and the human spaceflight program had come under criticism.

Karnik confirmed that India’s space program was very popular with the public. Its results, like telemedicine, meteorology, and telecommunications, have long been visible and the public “recognize the value of space.” He noted that cell phone access is inexpensive in India and even the lower classes can afford mobile phones—the public attributes this to space development. But he conceded that Chandrayaan and the human spaceflight plans had recently received some public criticism as wasteful and unnecessary.

Karnik stressed that India was not planning on discontinuing any of its existing programs and had plans to develop follow-on satellites for the current remote sensing and other programs. The reason that India is now branching out into space science and human spaceflight has little to do with prestige, he said, and more to do with maintaining the interest and involvement of the current space workforce who had become bored with developing the same systems over and over. These programs are about “satisfying the technical ego of the younger generation,” he explained.

Another questioner asked about the possibility of using satellites for coastal monitoring, a shortfall highlighted by the recent Mumbai terrorist attack. Karnik said that India has a vast coastline but does not have any plans for satellite surveillance of the coast—a daunting task. He said that a particular shortfall for India was the lack of a dedicated satellite for “disaster monitoring.” In response to a question about using satellites to warn of tsunamis, Karnik explained that at the moment India’s scientists are seeking to correlate the data they have to the satellites that could provide such warning. They still don’t understand what the data means, but they do hope to eventually develop a tsunami warning system using satellites.

Germany in space

Dr. Jürgen Drescher is the head of the Washington office of the Deutsches Zentrum für Luft und Raumfahrt (DLR). Drescher is a medical doctor by education and his background is in aeromedicine, but his current job makes him the primary representative of the German Center for Aeronautics and Spaceflight in the United States, acting as a liaison both to the American government and to industry. The person who introduced him referred to the DLR as the “German NASA,” but as Drescher explained, the DLR is actually significantly different than NASA in scope and function. Germany currently spends 572 million euros on European Space Agency programs and 191 million euros on its national program. In addition, the country spends 124 million euros on “research and technology,” which includes funding for various institutes throughout Germany.

Although the largest portion of DLR’s funding is spent on space, the agency also sponsors research in four other areas: aviation, energy, transportation, and the newest focus, security. Aviation funding includes basic research to support the aviation industry, including wind tunnel testing, advanced materials and composites research, as well as aviation safety and air traffic management research.

The DLR’s energy projects include work on things like solar cells and fuel cells. Drescher explained that one of the agency’s current projects is developing a fuel cell to replace the auxiliary power units (APUs) used by commercial jetliners to run their electronics and start their engines on the ground. APUs burn jet fuel and contribute to noise and pollution while the jets are at an airport. The fuel cell that DLR has developed produces up to 80 kilowatts of power, sufficient to replace an APU, and its only byproduct is water. The ultimate goal of the project is to couple the fuel cell’s electric power to the landing gear, enabling the plane to back away from the gate and taxi without the assistance of a tractor, thereby eliminating the pollution from two combustion engines—the APU and the tractor. The audience’s interest was clearly piqued by this device and anybody who has ever stepped out of an airplane into a fume-filled jetway can attest that this could definitely improve the environment.

The DLR is also responsible for studying the aerodynamics of high speed trains like the Inter City Exchange (ICE), and is working on various research projects associated with combustion technology.

The agency’s newest focus is security technology, a broad field that includes not only national security technologies, but things like airport screening devices. Like the United States, they have developed airport scanners that can peer through a person’s clothes and accurately reveal the presence of weapons and explosives on the body of a passenger transiting through a terminal. But, like the United States, they are also facing issues of personal privacy because the device effectively produces a high-resolution picture of a naked human being.

Although the largest portion of DLR’s funding is spent on space, the agency also sponsors research in four other areas: aviation, energy, transportation, and the newest focus, security.

According to Dr. Drescher, other aviation projects sponsored by the DLR include an effort to integrate unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) into commercial airspace. Drescher explained that, unlike the United States, Europe does not have separate military and civilian air corridors. European airspace is so crowded that it is nearly impossible to test fly UAVs in restricted airspace. This has provided incentive for the DLR to develop systems that allow UAV operations in Germany’s airspace, with the aircraft monitoring its local airspace and coordinating with the ground in order to avoid straying too close to manned aircraft.

Much of Dr. Drescher’s talk was devoted to spaceflight. Approximately forty percent of Germany’s 572 million euro contribution to ESA goes to the International Space Station and Germany played a major role in the development of the Columbus space laboratory and plans to conduct research there once the station becomes fully operational. Germany’s role in developing systems has been self-limited, however, and the country has primarily focused on the development of high quality space subsystems.

In recent years, Germany has substantially expanded its space capabilities. Although Drescher did not make the connection, nearly ten years ago the Bosnian conflict provided the impetus for a change in German defense policy. Numerous European countries found themselves in the unfortunate position of having limited ability to deal with a security threat in their own backyard and had to rely heavily upon the United States for important national security resources such as satellite intelligence. Today the situation has changed dramatically. In only the past few years Germany has acquired both a highly capable space-based synthetic aperture radar imaging capability and a low-resolution, quick response photoreconnaissance capability. In addition with the French Helios 2 medium resolution (better than one-meter) reconnaissance capability, and Italian space assets, Europe now has the ability to monitor both its own backyard as well as the rest of the world.

The German radar capability consists of two satellites known as TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X, producing 3-D elevation models with one-meter ground resolution imagery and also stereo imaging of non-moving targets. Using the Doppler effect, the satellites can also estimate the velocity of moving ground targets. According to Drescher, TerraSAR-X was a relatively inexpensive program, costing approximately 180 million euros, including launch and the ground station. He said that DLR is in discussion with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory to build more such satellites with additional frequencies.

The five-satellite photoreconnaissance constellation known as RapidEye can produce quick overviews of terrain features. The images are low resolution, but because of the constellation size the satellites have the ability to cover a lot of territory and revisit targets relatively quickly. The products of both TerraSAR-X and RapidEye are sold commercially and the United States military is a customer. Drescher explained that the next major step for the DLR is the development of EnMap, a hyperspectral Environmental Mapping system.

The DLR is also involved in two future space science projects, the eROSITA x-ray spacecraft, and the BepiColumbo Mercury orbiter. In addition, the DLR is focusing attention on “satellite maintenance and services,” which includes everything from space situational awareness—monitoring the environment around its satellites—to protecting them from malfunction or attack.

Drescher also discussed the DLR’s work on the Lunar Exploration Orbiter, or LEO, and showed a computer animation of the spacecraft. LEO could be launched by 2013 atop a Soyuz rocket and sent to an initial 100-kilometer orbit around the Moon. It would be equipped with two subsatellites for gravity mapping of the Moon. The spacecraft would carry a number of instruments, including a synthetic aperture radar sounder and a primary payload of an advanced high-resolution stereo imaging camera developed at DLR Berlin Adlershof. After operating in its initial 100-kilometer orbit, LEO would descend to 50 kilometers where it would be able to map the Moon in multispectral ranges at better than one meter resolution—better even than NASA’s Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter scheduled for launch in spring of next year.

Lunar Exploration Orbiter would be an entirely German mission, without ESA or foreign involvement. Unfortunately, this past summer the German government decided not to fund the spacecraft, only the instruments. The DLR will continue instrument development and if it does not receive funding to build the spacecraft in the future, it may then offer the instruments to other nations to fly on their own lunar spacecraft.

Neither India nor Germany has flashy space programs. Unlike the United States, prestige plays a limited role in determining what they do. Instead, their space programs are closely linked to a relatively narrow definition of their societal needs.

Although Drescher did not address the overall trends in German space funding, aerospace budgets took a substantial hit after reunification in the early 1990s. As the German government pumped money into the former East Germany, it drastically cut back other programs, including space. One thing clear from Drescher’s talk is that the DLR is actively looking for both partners and markets, undoubtedly to continue to justify the agency’s funding.

As Dr. Drescher emphasized during his talk, both the United States and Germany share a number of technology development and policy interests: decreased airport pollution, integrating UAVs into civilian airspace, and even the problems of airport security and personal privacy. But ITAR remains a major impediment for future space cooperation between the DLR and NASA. Surprisingly, the DLR has been able to engage in a number of cooperative efforts with the US Air Force and the Missile Defense Agency, “but with NASA it’s impossible for us,” he joked.

Different countries, similar interests

At first look it might seem rather odd to include both India and Germany in a discussion of space programs. After all, India remains a developing country, only now venturing out to do the kinds of space projects that Germany has been involved in for decades. But upon closer examination, the two countries’ space programs share many characteristics. Neither India nor Germany has flashy space programs. Unlike the United States, prestige plays a limited role in determining what they do. Instead, their space programs are closely linked to a relatively narrow definition of their societal needs. Germany is the more mature space power, and deeply entwined with numerous partners. But it still maintains a limited national space program.

From a policy standpoint, India is the more interesting of the two. Whereas China is branching into space science and human spaceflight both to satisfy a domestic audience and to demonstrate Chinese technological capabilities on the international stage, India’s motivations are more internal and bureaucratic. Although India certainly responds to the actions of other countries in space, as Counsellor Karnik hinted, claims of an “Asian moon race” are probably overrated. India has been successful at using its space program to meet social needs, but has found that this is not enough; in order to attract and keep people in its space program—to meet their “technical ego”—India has had to set its sights higher.


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