German radar satellite TerraSAR-X – 15 years in space and still in perfect condition

Fifteen years – who would have thought? The German TerraSAR-X radar satellite, which was launched from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 08:14 local time on June 15, 2007, was originally designed to last five and a half years – until the end of 2012. It provided data of exceptional quality since then, regardless of weather conditions, cloud cover and sunshine. The TerraSAR-X science mission and the satellite itself are operated by the German Aerospace Center.

As it turns 15, TerraSAR-X can look back 83,050 Earth orbits, having traveled about 3.59 billion kilometers – a great distance. If the satellite were heading away from Earth in a straight line, it would have crossed Uranus’ orbit at the end of 2018 and would now be roughly halfway between the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. At 15 years old, TerraSAR-X is still in pristine condition.

Thanks to its robust design, combined with the highest measurement accuracy and stability, the satellite always provides radar images that far exceed the initial mission requirements. The high-resolution data and continuous view provided by TerraSAR-X enables researchers around the world to document and better understand the changes occurring on Earth, while facilitating early detection of irreversible damage and identifying where intervention is needed. . These data provide an essential basis for developing measures at the political and social level.

A data repository and a research topic
Over its lifetime, TerraSAR-X has acquired more than 400,000 radar images, collecting 1.34 petabytes of data in the process. This equates to 1,340,000 gigabytes or the streaming of approximately 270,000 high-definition feature films, which would take approximately 60 years to unfold. The satellite heritage becomes more complete, more valuable and more widely used every day. More than 1100 leading researchers from 64 countries now use and process its data in 1875 ongoing research projects.

Not only does the range of applications encompass the entire geoscience spectrum, including geology, glaciology, oceanography, meteorology and hydrology, but radar data is also essential for environmental research, land mapping land use, vegetation monitoring, and urban and infrastructure planning. Cartography, navigation, logistics, crisis management, defense and security also rely on TerraSAR-X data.

The satellite itself is also the subject of research and development, particularly in the field of radar technology. Thanks to its flexible design, the radar system allows experiments to be carried out using new imaging modes such as “super wide angle” and “super zoom”, similar to a camera equipped with different lenses.

Officially called “WideScanSAR” and “Staring Spotlight Mode”, they were introduced during the mission and then made available to users. The satellite continues to conduct radar experiments to test new techniques that could be used on future radar missions.

A third dimension with TanDEM-X
Since June 21, 2010, TerraSAR-X has been accompanied by the TanDEM-X satellite, of almost identical design. TanDEM-X and TerraSAR-X form the first reconfigurable Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) interferometer in space, recording precise height information to create digital elevation models. This means that TerraSAR-X is now used for two missions – the original TerraSAR-X mission and the TanDEM-X mission for three-dimensional mapping of the Earth’s surface.

Despite its unprecedented longevity, a day will eventually come when TerraSAR-X will no longer be able to perform its duties. Resources such as thruster and battery capacity are regularly depleted. However, if there are no major incidents, TerraSAR-X could remain operational until the end of the 2020s.

Environmental observation of the future – Tandem-L
With the TerraSAR-X and TanDEM-X satellite missions, the DLR has set new standards in radar remote sensing. Its experts are already working on the next generation of radar satellites for climate research and environmental monitoring, in the form of Tandem-L, a highly innovative radar satellite mission.

This could see Germany providing a system for objective environmental recording and observation of environmental changes all over the world. The goal is to provide essential information to solve highly relevant problems. For example, the latest report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) calls for the development of climate protection measures and the review of measures taken on a global scale, as a matter of urgency.

With Tandem-L, it would be possible to record a large number of dynamic processes in the biosphere, geosphere, cryosphere and hydrosphere with unprecedented quality and resolution. The new constellation of satellites could provide up-to-date 3D imagery of Earth’s entire landmass on a weekly basis and simultaneously measure seven critical climate variables. In doing so, Tandem-L would make a significant contribution to a better understanding of the processes that are now seen as drivers of local and global climate change.

Related links

TerraSAR-X at DLR

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