As we are turning 30 years, we a delighted to give you insights on our history as well as future missions with space technology made by Jena-Optronik.
As science fiction became reality… 36.000 km above Earth
Northrop Grumman’s “Mission Extension Vehicle-1” (MEV-1) had its historic docking with the Intelsat 901 (IS-901) spacecraft on February 25, 2020. Now, MEV-2 successfully docked with the Intelsat IS-1002 satellite, again with space technology from Jena.
The Mission Extension Vehicle-2 (MEV-2), manufactured by Northrop Grumman for SpaceLogistics, a wholly owned subsidiary of Northrop Grumman, launched on August 15, 2020. Sensors for the docking and un-docking of MEV-2 are again supplied by Jena-Optronik GmbH.
The Jena team supplied systems consist of the Rendezvous- and Docking Sensor RVS®3000-3D and the RVS®cam (VSS - Visual Sensor Suite) camera system as well as the flight-proven ASTRO® APS star sensors.
“The MEV Mission is so far absolutely unique. Every young engineer dreams to be part of something exciting. Something to tell your grandchildren. To design and qualify a LIDAR for the MEV mission was that experience to me”, Christoph Schmitt, Project Manager RVS3000-3D at Jena-Optronik. “Our mission was to develop a sensor that could identify and track a satellite that was not designed for the purpose of docking. The LIDAR needs to operate reliably for 15 years in a very harsh GEO environment under the influence of heavy radiation and still be able to generate high-resolution 3D images (point clouds) of a satellite. We also needed to design and implement from scratch, very sophisticated image processing algorithms to calculate the position and attitude of the target satellite. The combination of both sensors and algorithms, assists the MEV to safely approach and dock to its clients. To see the new sensor generation actually performing in space against the first target satellite Intelsat IS-901 was definitely a ’to-tell-your-grandchildren-moment.’”
Same scene - different view
The left image shows IS-901 in front of the Earth in its geostationary orbit. The right hand side is an overlay image of several returns from our RVS3000-3D – comparison points – with the fitted CAD model of IS-901. The image demonstrates what happens inside of the intelligent RVS3000-3D Sensor.
Real image of IS-901 in orbit (left): seen by Jena-Optronik's VSS on MEV-1
Scan and pose visualization of the satellite from RVS3000-3D (right)
Pictures © Northrop Grumman
Diversity of future space robotics missions
For future missions, like on-orbit servicing, space debris removal or planetary landing, a powerful 3D imaging LIDAR system is required (LIDAR: light detection and ranging). In addition, the application of advanced image processing techniques will be essential in order to safely operate a spacecraft relative to a space object that was not prepared for servicing. Jena-Optronik’s new 3D LIDAR called RVS3000-3D represents a solution to both challenges via the combination of a high resolution scanning LIDAR with robust pose estimation algorithms.
“The most fascinating part of this mission is that many of the team members from the RVS3000 team were back in school at the time that the GEO satellite we are docking to was designed. Try to imagine how they did all the drawings and analysis at that time. There is no CAD model – all we have is photographs taken during satellite integration. How it looks like after many years in orbit is another unknown. Today we are going to dock to it. Sounds crazy, even though it all happens right above our heads!” explains Dr. Reinhard Berger, head of Projects and Programs at Jena-Optronik GmbH. ”In the close future, missions that are even more complex are foreseen and possible. What they called science fiction in 1990 is now reality and what we call science fiction right now will be possible very soon! This is not the only thing, which is happening in space right now, we are even looking out to land and stay on the moon and further to Mars.”
A rendezvous in space: heritage
LIDAR activities at Jena-Optronik started in the 1990s with an ESA project delivering the first prototype rendezvous- and docking sensor, RVS. The first RVS was used on two flights to the Russian space station MIR on board the NASA Space Shuttle missions STS-84 and STS-86.
Answering the demands for unmanned supply missions to the International Space Station (ISS), Jena-Optronik’s team took the next step and designed, built and qualified the final flight hardware rendezvous- and docking sensor RVS for the use within European, Japanese and US transfer vehicles to the ISS.
For future applications, like on-orbit servicing or planetary landing, a more powerful 3D imaging LIDAR system was required. The concept for a new powerful, yet compact and cost-effective LIDAR system was developed to both replace the legacy RVS sensor and enable additional mission scenarios: the RVS3000 product family.
The RVS3000 product family consists of the RVS3000 and RVS3000-3D. The additional capabilities that come with the RVS3000-3D variant ensure the autonomously identification of structures and are the enabler for missions like MEV or future landing mission on Moon, Mars, and other celestial bodies. The systems are designed as a Time-of-Flight scanning LIDAR – the same concept as successfully used in the previous projects. For the design of RVS3000 and RVS3000-3D, a modular approach is followed with both sensor versions sharing the same mechanical design and footprint.
Muli-spectral imager MKF-6
Tradition and future: For decades now we’ve been making space missions possible. The roots of our activities for the Sentinel satellites go back to the multi-spectral imager MKF-6.
Launched on September 12th,1976 MKF-6 was first used in space on board the Soyuz 22 spacecraft. It allowed six different multi-spectral ranges of light to be captured on special, highly-sensitive black-and-white film, an innovation back then, and produced the first detailed images of our home planet.
It was this multi-spectral camera used to observe the earth, alongside the first autonomous star sensors, that represented the initial knowledge of the team who would later found Jena-Optronik GmbH in 1991.
Detailed view from space
Detecting things on Earth as small as 8 kilometers from orbit at an altitude of 36,000 kilometers? This is what the latest European Meteosat Third Generation Sounder satellite (Meteosat Third Generation, MTG for short) is capable of while on the European Copernicus program’s Sentinel-4 mission. With eyesight like that, one could decipher the last line of letters on a typical eye test poster from across a football stadium. Jena-Optronik GmbH, a company from Thuringia, builds the optics and electronics involved. To make Sentinel-4 possible, the Jena experts have developed two innovative procedures.
Jena-Optronik is contributing several optical systems to Sentinel-4, including a telescope and two spectrometers that capture high-resolution images of our planet Earth. These optics work in principle like their terrestrial counterparts: in an objective, different lenses are arranged one behind the other to focus the light, ultimately creating sharp images. However, the conditions under which the lenses operate in space are much more demanding than on Earth. Jena-Optronik has
Stable despite increased mechanical loads:
One is called clamping, a process for assembling the objectives. The challenge? On rockets, especially during launch, the objective is exposed to extremely high loads. These usually cause the lens holders inside the objective housing to bend or lose their alignment to each other. This causes the optics to fall out of focus and the whole instrument to become unusable. Jena-Optronik has therefore developed a special clamping system and mechanical holders for the lenses. During the assembly of the lenses into the tube, a pressure of one ton is generated. This ultimately leads to the final adjustment and securing of the correct spacing of the lenses. All the lenses are fixed by pressure, so to speak, and thus prepared for the high accelerations and loads during rocket launch.
Sharp images despite temperature fluctuations:
For an objective to be able to fulfill its task in space, Jena-Optronik has also developed a process that goes by the unwieldy name of passive athermalization. Background: A geostationary satellite is exposed to regular temperature fluctuations, changing according to whether it is flying in the Earth's shadow or is exposed to full sunlight. This causes its materials to expand and contract. In an objective, this would change the distances between the lenses and thus the focus continuously, which must not happen. Even deviations in the µm range, around 0.001 millimeters, would lead to blurred images. In order to prevent this, so far the distances between lenses have been actively readjusted, for example using software and motor-driven actuators. This process is as complex as it is error-prone, requiring additional electronics and sensors. Jena-Optronik has now developed a lens mount in which each lens has a two-part mount ring that automatically counteracts any deformation resulting from temperature changes. In this way, temperature fluctuations can be compensated for without the need for a power source or an additional drive mechanism.
Jena-Optronik has developed both technologies on behalf of Airbus Defence & Space and the European Space Agency ESA. They are expected to be deployed on the latest MTG satellite in the Sentinel-4 mission starting in 2023. This will then monitor the Earth's atmosphere as part of the European Copernicus Earth observation program, collecting valuable data on greenhouse gases, air quality and ozone formation, among other things. This will further improve the already highly accurate predictions of climate change and enable comprehensive protective measures to be taken.
This article has been produced with the financial assistance of the European Union. The views expressed herein can in no way be taken to reflect the official opinion of the European Union or ESA.
HRSC for MarsExpress
A reunion with Mars: Technology developed by Jena-Optronik has been orbiting the red planet already since 2003 as part of ESA's MarsExpress mission. We delivered space optics for the HRSC high-resolution stereo camera and the SRC stereo camera.
Return ticket booked: From Earth to Mars and back again
Star sensors from Jena lead the way to the red planet.
Three ASTRO® APS star sensors (star trackers) from Jena-Optronik GmbH have been selected for the "Mars Sample Return - Earth Return Orbiter" (MSR-ERO for short) mission and will be supporting this fascinating project. The reliability and excellent performance of the ASTRO APS were key factors in the selection process by Airbus Defence and Space in France.
Mars Sample Return is a joint mission between the U.S. space agency NASA and the European Space Agency ESA. The Earth Return Orbiter is one of three mission elements for which Airbus Defence and Space in Toulouse was selected as prime contractor by ESA. The ambitious goal is to bring samples from Mars back to Earth for the first time. Three consecutive missions will be implemented to fulfill this challenging task. Mission components, which are manufactured to the highest quality and cutting-edge technology are crucial for the project’s success.
The ASTRO APS is the world’s most successful and extensively used high-reliability satellite attitude orbit control sensor. For several decades, star sensors from Jena have been successfully used on a large number of satellites, such as for Earth observation and telecommunications. They will also fly on the new manned ORION spacecraft.
Its proven reliability as well as its compact design and low power consumption led to the selection of the ASTRO APS from Jena-Optronik for the position control of the Earth Return Orbiter. The high resistance to the harsh cosmic radiation as well as to the extreme environmental conditions in space are additional advantages for the Martian round trip.
A reunion with Mars:
Technology developed by Jena-Optronik has been orbiting the red planet already since 2003 as part of the MarsExpress mission. The specialists at Jena-Optronik have delivered space optics for the HRSC high-resolution stereo camera and the SRC stereo camera. The HRSC and SRC lens systems are the eyes of this ESA Mission.