30 Years of Satellites at TU Berlin
17th July 2021 marked the 30th anniversary of TU Berlin’s first satellite launch. To date, 26 satellites have been sent into space following TUBSAT-A, the most recent just two weeks ago.
When launched back in 1991 from the Kourou Space Center in French Guiana with an Ariane 4 rocket, TUBSAT-A became just the fourth satellite to be put into orbit by a university anywhere in the world. Its onboard equipment included a star camera for purposes of orientation, gallium arsenide solar cells, as well as a VHF radio unit. Despite this spartan equipment, TUBSAT-A had an important mission to perform, serving as a communication link for one of explorer Arved Fuchs’s polar missions.
Constructed by a team working under Professor Udo Renner, TUBSAT-A had two objectives: Firstly, to demonstrate new technological developments, transferring the concepts of larger satellites to microsatellites, at that time still a new technology. TUBSAT-A was just the same size as a crate of water bottles and weighed only 35 kilograms and the instruments for controlling the flight attitude and the communications equipment had to be adjusted accordingly. At the same time, this first TU Berlin satellite, just like its successors, offered students a chance to take part in real space missions, providing additional motivation for their studies as well as a chance to gain practical experience.
Microsatellites as mail boxes
TUBSAT-A’s unique features included the opportunity to communicate via a radio transmitter no bigger than a walkie-talkie. This meant that two persons at different positions on the Earth’s surface could use the satellite as a mailbox for text or voice messages. Communication had to be staggered, as the satellite was only accessible for a few minutes at a time and at different times. This fulfilled a very useful function at a period when satellite telephones were still in their infancy: “This technology enabled us to support polar researcher Arved Fuchs’s expedition,” explains Udo Renner. The expedition was equipped with a transceiver during a circumnavigation of the North Pole from 1991 to 1994. An expedition led by Russian and Canadian explorers Mischa Malakow and Richard Weber was similarly equipped with a portable transmitter. Malakow and Weber made their round trip to the North Pole on skis, relying on TUBSAT-A as their only communication with the outside world.
Quick to learn and incorporate new knowledge
“When launching TUBSAT-A, we had no idea that we would be able to reduce the transceiver unit to such small dimensions,” says Renner, who is now 81 years old. That was typical for the working procedures at a university. There was a great deal of freedom to simply try things out. Then there was the simpler design of the satellites, which enabled smaller innovation cycles: “We were able to learn quickly and incorporate what we had learned in the next small satellite.”
TUBSAT-A remained functional for an astounding 16 years. Its communication technology was also used to track deer in the Harz Mountains, who transmitted their position to TUBSAT-A via a GPS neckband, as well as for the Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, whose research team used the satellite to communicate with each other in the Antarctic.
Swarms of nanosatellites
Other satellites followed on from the success of TUBSAT-A, such as the DLR-TUBSAT, the first satellite of the German Aerospace Center (DLR), launched in 1999, as well as the first Moroccan satellite (MAROC-TUBSAT) in 2001, and the first Indonesian satellite (LAPAN-TUBSAT) in 2007. All these satellites were designed and constructed working together with and supported by the commissioning unit at TU Berlin. Later, under Professor Klaus Brieß, satellites were made even smaller, resulting in nanosatellites weighing less than 10 kilograms. The vision here is to launch entire swarms of such celestial bodies to record various data simultaneously and communicate with each other.
Time for interdisciplinary collaboration
The microsatellite TUBIN was launched on 30 June this year. In addition to testing out technological innovations, it will also be used to monitor major fires, such as forest fires, “We have now reached a position where we can approach other academic chairs and research groups and say ‘We have these functioning satellite platforms, how could we use these to conduct research together?’” explains Professor Enrico Stoll, head of the Chair of Space Technology since February 2021. There are a great many possibilities for cooperation, particularly in the areas of Earth observation and atmospheric research.
This week, TU Berlin will commemorate the anniversary of its first satellite launch with a major web feature: https://www.tu.berlin/
Further information available from:
Prof. Dr.-Ing. Enrico Stoll
Tel.: +49 30 314-21339