The German ‘Heinrich Hertz’ satellite communications mission has now reached its final phase: on 28 June 2017, Gerd Gruppe, member of the DLR Executive Board for the Space Administration at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft-und Raumfahrt; DLR), and Marco Fuchs, the Chief Executive Officer of the company OHB System AG, signed a contract to manufacture, test and launch the German satellite. “When the ‘Heinrich Hertz’ mission is launched in 2021, it will pave the way for securing the future of satellite communications,” Gruppe said. “In this age of digitalisation and big data, it is imperative that larger and larger volumes of data can be transported more quickly and reliably. This makes way for new technologies, such as those that will be tested in space as part of the ‘Heinrich Hertz’ mission. This mission will allow Germany to demonstrate its key competencies in payload and platform technologies for geostationary satellites at an international level, and enable it to safeguard its system competency within this field.”
Testing new communications technology in space
The contract signing marks the start of many things: defining the detailed design, manufacturing and testing hardware and software for the entire satellite communications system – which includes both the space and ground segment – and launch preparations. In addition to new technologies, which will be tested under the extreme conditions encountered in space – such as extreme temperature fluctuations, microgravity and vacuum – the satellite will carry some 20 experiments from the fields of communication, antenna and satellite technology. These experiments will be autonomously carried out on board the satellite whilst it is circling Earth in a geostationary orbit at an altitude of approximately 36,000 kilometres. The acquired data will then be sent back to Earth and evaluated by participating research institutions and companies.
Additional experiments will be conducted for the German Armed Forces, such as an independent telecommunications payload, which will complement existing capacities. The German Federal Ministry of Defence intends to use the military part of the mission for its own communication needs by establishing satellite transmission capacities using Ku and Ka frequency bands. Until now, Ku band satellite capacities have been hired through commercial channels. These are set to be replaced and expanded with new capacities in the Ka band. In doing so, it is hoped that contributions will be made towards the steadily increasing demand for satellite transmission capacities, which can be used to lead and support military operations carried out by the German Armed Forces.
Increased efficiency and flexibility
“The new payload concept introduced by the ‘Heinrich Hertz’ mission will enable us, for the first time, to react flexibly to market requirements, and thus be ready for the future,” said Ultes. Until now, the configuration of satellites has always been carried out on Earth. As such, it was not possible to implement any subsequent adaptations as a result of developments in the market whilst the satellite was in space. This will no longer be the case with ‘Heinrich Hertz’. Using a variety of flexible technologies, such as small on-board computers, it will be possible to continually reprogram the satellite from the ground station throughout its 15-year mission. This means that existing signal resources could be adapted efficiently to meet ever-changing demands. “This effectively means that “Heinrich Hertz” is ‘capable of learning’ throughout its life,” Ultes explains.
‘Heinrich Hertz’ is the size of a mini van, placing it within the category of small satellite missions, and it is based on the SmallGEOs (Small Geostationary Satellite Orbit) principle. The platform for such small satellites is a modular design, which is not only flexible, but can also be implemented quickly. It is also ‘Made in Germany’, since SmallGEO was developed by OHB System AG as part of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) ARTES programme.
Interdisciplinary collaboration for implementation
Even when it comes to the implementation of the ‘Heinrich Hertz’ project itself, Germany is exploring new avenues. The mission will be carried out jointly by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi) and the German Federal Ministry of Defence (BMVg). The entire project will be headed up by the BMWi. ‘Heinrich Hertz’ will be built, tested and launched by Bremen-based OHB System AG. The company is also responsible for the development and design of the satellite. These new technologies, including any related communications experiments, come from more than 40 small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as scientific institutions in Germany. The DLR Space Administration is responsible for project planning and implementation. The ‘Heinrich Hertz’ satellite mission is supported by the DLR Space Administration, with funding from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi), and conducted in collaboration with the German Federal Ministry of Defence (BMVg).