On the Trail of Life in Space and Changes on Earth

In the coming years, space research will straddle two seemingly contradictory ambitions: To look both at the Earth and deep into space. We want to help preserve life on our home planet while seeking to understand how life actually develops.

The Earth is changing more and more quickly – the steady march of anthropogenic climate change is just one example. These change processes can be observed from space. The knowledge gained provides an important foundation for policy decisions. Top achievements in space research are also important drivers of technological innovations.

Key research areas in the space research program

Through its strategic research, Helmholtz plays a role in the generation of new fundamental knowledge and the efficient application of technological innovations – from the fields of data science and artificial intelligence, for example – to spaceflight. The program focuses on seven key research areas:

  • The Space Transportation area looks at a key technological question – namely, how to get to space in the first place. New rocket technologies are making space increasingly accessible as a research environment. We also conduct research into sustainable propellants for launch vehicles and use extensive simulations to shorten rocket development cycles and reduce production costs.
  • The global trend is toward compact, flexible satellites. In the Space System Technology research area, we design our own compact satellites and carry out our own satellite missions using state-of-the-art digital methods. The researchers also aim to help detect space junk and develop concepts for its disposal.
  • The Robotics research area investigates the potential uses of robots. Robots are universal machines that can help assemble space stations, explore planets, and assist astronauts in space. Robotic systems are also being developed for use on Earth, e.g., in production or medical contexts, or to provide humanitarian aid in crisis zones.
  • Being able to access accurate information at any time is part of everyday life for all of us, whether we want to check a bank statement, receive news updates on a cell phone, or use the navigation system in a car. The Communication, Navigation, and Quantum Technology research area addresses these satellite-based services. How can rural parts of the world access these technologies too? How can the technologies be made even more secure? Optical communication systems play an important role here. Quantum technologies hold the promise of enormous advances in performance compared to conventional systems. They can be used to develop even more precise instruments for space applications and make the navigation systems of tomorrow a reality.
  • In the Earth Observation research area, we monitor changes in land surfaces, oceans, and the atmosphere and develop measures to protect the environment and the climate. By monitoring changes in the climate or rising sea levels, we can, for example, significantly improve climate models. Earth observation satellites give a quick overview in the event of acute catastrophes, such as earthquakes or floods, and thus provide key information for emergency services on the ground. Remote sensing via satellite also makes it possible to generate digital maps of the Earth’s surface as well as daily weather forecasts, thus helping to keep air traffic and shipping safe, for example.
  • Scientific experiments on Earth are always subject to terrestrial conditions. But how do substances or even the human body react when these conditions do not apply? The Research under Space Conditions research area is concerned with obtaining this kind of “pure” knowledge and develops applications in the field of materials science and even medical therapies.
  • The Space Exploration research area investigates the origin and development of our solar system and other planetary systems. Our researchers focus on objects in our own and other solar systems. With more than a dozen missions planned over the next few years, we hope to develop a new understanding of the origins of the solar system, of life, and of our “cosmic neighbors,” thereby also gaining insights into our Earth.

Space Research Program Factsheet

  • In the space research program, we explore the technological foundations for modern life on Earth, such as those underpinning our communication and navigation systems, Earth observation from space, and modern robotics applications.
  • As a key player in the field of Earth observation, we create the framework for research into changes in the environment and climate. One of the applications of this work is to help to improve climate models.
  • Our scientists take part in international missions to gather fundamental knowledge about the solar system, extrasolar planetary systems, and extraterrestrial life in space.
  • Important fundamental questions addressed in the research program include identifying which mechanisms change the human body once outside Earth’s atmosphere and determining how to enable astronauts to live in space.
  • The program responds to the requirements of “new space” with research into new launch infrastructure and satellite systems. Accessing space is set to become easier and more efficient.
  • Top-level technological research into new materials and microelectronics is the foundation for practical applications and secures market opportunities for Germany’s domestic economy.
  • 37 German Aerospace Center institutes are involved in the space research program. The German Aerospace Center is part of a global network and works closely with other Helmholtz Centers, national and international research organizations, space agencies, and the space industry.
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