Research/Industry Partnership on Climate Telescope

Metal freeform mirror telescope

This metal freeform mirror telescope, created by Fraunhofer researchers in Jena and Freiburg, Germany, along with industry partners, will be demonstrated next spring on the International Space Station. [Image: Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering, Jena, Germany]

Climate change can drastically affect Earth’s water cycle, a key determinant of agriculture and food production. Now, researchers from the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering in Jena, in cooperation with the institution’s industry spinoffs, have designed and manufactured a novel metal telescope with freeform mirrors to be demonstrated on the International Space Station (ISS). The team believes that the telescope could improve surface temperature measurements and inform more efficient use of water for crops.

The telescope, funded by the Digital Innovation Hub Photonics (DIHP)—a German initiative to promote optics and photonics start-ups—will be part of a measurement instrument that will gather data on the Earth’s water cycle from the ISS. In the near future, the Fraunhofer team plans to incorporate the measurement instrument into networks of small satellites that will enable more accurate predictions of the effects of climate change.

Monitoring climate change from space

Space satellites collect images of Earth—including information on geology, weather and agricultural production—that help inform scientists about the planet’s climate. The Fraunhofer team aims to provide more comprehensive data about the Earth’s changing climate with networks of shoebox-sized satellites equipped with miniaturized but powerful imaging technology. 

A key piece of that imaging technology is the metal freeform mirror telescope designed by Fraunhofer researchers and manufactured by industry spinoff SpaceOptix. The first demonstration of the mirror telescope, the optical component in a new surface temperature measuring instrument, is scheduled for the ISS in early to mid-2022.

The Fraunhofer Institute for High-Speed Dynamics, Ernst-Mach-Institute in Freiburg and its industry spin-off ContstellR aim to incorporate the measuring instrument into constellations of microsatellites. The constellations, made up of tens to hundreds of small satellites, will collect and combine imaging data from on-board thermal infrared cameras to measure surface temperatures on Earth with high spatial resolution and temporal coverage.

Head of DIHP Sebastian Haendschke said in a recent Fraunhofer press release: “This cooperation and the presented results are a very good example of the intention of DIHP and teaming up with [industry] spin-offs.” ConstellR and SpaceOptix were both awarded research funding during the 2020 DIHP elevator-pitch event.

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