17. February 2017
DLR and Airbus sign contract for MERLIN environmental satellite

Ger­man-French cli­mate mis­sion en­ters its im­ple­men­ta­tion phase

DLR and Air­bus sign con­tract for MER­LIN en­vi­ron­men­tal satel­lite
Image 1/3, Credit: Airbus DS GmbH.

DLR and Airbus sign contract for MERLIN environmental satellite

On 17 Febru­ary 2017 in Ot­to­brunn, the Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR) Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion and Air­bus De­fence and Space GmbH signed a con­tract for the de­sign and con­struc­tion phas­es of the Ger­man-French cli­mate satel­lite MER­LIN (Methane Re­mote Sens­ing LI­DAR Mis­sion). From left to right: An­dreas Wolke, Head of the Of­fice of Man­age­ment and Bud­get at the DLR Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion, Gerd Gruppe, DLR Ex­ec­u­tive Board Mem­ber re­spon­si­ble for the Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion, Franz Josef Pschier­er, Bavaria's Vice Min­is­ter of Eco­nom­ic Af­fairs, Michael Menk­ing, Head of Earth Ob­ser­va­tion, Nav­i­ga­tion and Sci­ence at Space Sys­tems for Air­bus De­fence and Space and Eckard Set­telmey­er, Head of Earth Ob­ser­va­tion, Nav­i­ga­tion and Sci­ence at the Friedrichshafen site.
Artist’s im­pres­sion of MER­LIN
Image 2/3, Credit: CNES/Illustration David DUCROS.

Artist’s impression of MERLIN

The Ger­man-French MER­LIN satel­lite will mea­sure the methane con­cen­tra­tion in Earth's at­mo­sphere from 2021. MER­LIN is based on the new satel­lite bus 'Myr­i­ade Evo­lu­tions' de­vel­oped by CNES to­geth­er with the French aerospace in­dus­try. The satel­lite pay­load - a so-called LI­DAR (LIght De­tec­tion And Rang­ing) in­stru­ment, which can al­so con­duct mea­sure­ments at night and through thin clouds, is be­ing de­vel­oped and con­struct­ed in Ger­many on be­half of the DLR Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion, fund­ed by the Fed­er­al Min­istry for Eco­nom­ic Af­fairs and En­er­gy (BMWi). The core part of the in­stru­ment is a laser, which can send out light puls­es on two dif­fer­ent wave­lengths and thus mea­sure the methane con­cen­tra­tion at all lat­i­tudes with great pre­ci­sion re­gard­less of sun­light.
Fu­ture Laser FU­LAS
Image 3/3, Credit: Airbus DS GmbH & Fraunhofer ILT, 2016.

Future Laser FULAS

The Fu­ture Laser FU­LAS was de­vel­oped by the Eu­ro­pean Space Agen­cy (ESA) in co­op­er­a­tion with the DLR Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion. This laser was suc­cess­ful­ly test­ed in 2016 for use in the MER­LIN in­stru­ment.

  • Small satellite mission to measure methane concentration in Earth's atmosphere from 2021 onwards.
  • Environmental impact of methane is 25 times higher than that of carbon dioxide.
  • Germany's contribution is the methane LIDAR, an innovative measuring instrument that can be operated at all latitudes regardless of sunlight.

On 17 February 2017, the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft-und Raumfahrt; DLR) Space Administration and Air­bus De­fence and Space GmbH signed a contract for the design and construction phases of the German-French climate satellite MER­LIN (Methane Remote Sensing LIDAR Mission). From 2021, this small satellite mission will measure the methane concentration in Earth's atmosphere to an unprecedented level of accuracy and thus contribute to research into the causes of climate change.

The contract was signed at the Airbus site in Ottobrunn and includes the German contribution to the mission – namely, the development and construction of the methane LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging), the measuring instrument on board the MERLIN satellite. The core part of the instrument is a laser, which can send out light pulses on two different wavelengths and thus measure the methane concentration at all latitudes with great precision regardless of sunlight.

"Space missions such as MERLIN measure trace gases in our atmosphere and therefore help us to understand the changes that are taking place in our climate; this is an important element towards implementing the United Nations Paris Agreement on Climate Change," said Gerd Gruppe, DLR Executive Board Member responsible for the Space Administration, on the occasion of the contract signing. "Methane is a particularly strong greenhouse gas. Its effect on the climate is 25 times more powerful than that of carbon dioxide (CO2) on a timescale of 100 years. And although the concentration of methane is significantly lower than that of carbon dioxide, at present it contributes to approximately 20 percent of global warming. Effective measures for climate protection must therefore address methane. For that reason, it is necessary to have measurements from all over the world. This can only be achieved with satellites."

Methane is warming up our planet

Methane affects Earth in three different ways: first of all, it has its own global warming potential. In addition, it facilitates the formation of ozone in the lower levels of the atmosphere and also reduces aerosols in the atmosphere. These sulphur aerosols reflect incoming sunlight directly back into space. More methane therefore means less reflection and thus also additional global warming.

Searching using light waves

The LIDAR instrument is being developed and constructed in Germany on behalf of the DLR Space Administration, funded by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (BMWi). "MERLIN is a great technological challenge. Germany is breaking new technological ground with the innovative laser. We are thus fostering innovation far beyond the boundaries of the project," stressed Gruppe.

The laser is not harmful to the human eye. The wavelengths used fall within the infrared range. These have been chosen so that one of them is absorbed by methane, whereas the other one is not. MERLIN emits two pulses in short succession to the same location on Earth's surface. The reflected light is then picked up and registered by a telescope on the small satellite. One of the pulses is weakened by the methane that is present in the atmosphere – the other is not. This difference enables scientists to determine the quantity of methane present between the satellite and the ground. The data acquired by the satellite can also be transmitted to ground stations several times a day.

The LIDAR process has several advantages: the data contain minimal systematic errors. It is therefore possible, using computer models to evaluate the data, to reliably identify sources and sinks of methane and their global distribution. Methane is released in environments where organic matter decomposes where there is little or no oxygen – mainly in the agriculture, forestry, mining and gas extraction industries, as well as in sewage treatment plants and landfill sites. But the largest amount is released as a result of permafrost soil thawing in the Arctic. MERLIN has been designed to track down these sources of methane around the world and make use of any holes in the clouds with its short light pulses. In addition, as an 'active instrument' the LIDAR generates its light itself, the reflection of which it measures. This means that the climate satellite is also capable of monitoring certain regions on Earth – even at night.

  • German industry participation

    The LIDAR instrument is being built by a consortium of companies and research institutes from Germany, France and the Netherlands under the supervision of Airbus Defence and Space GmbH in Ottobrunn. Alongside the design, integration and testing activities for the LIDAR instrument, Airbus is also taking over the construction of several subsystems. The laser, which presents a particular technological challenge, is being constructed by the Fraunhofer Institute for Laser Technology in Aachen in collaboration with Airbus in Ottobrunn. The design is based on the Future Laser (FULAS), developed by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the DLR Space Administration, which was successfully tested in 2016. Other subsystems for the MERLIN LIDAR will come from the German companies SpaceTec GmbH and Ho­ern­er & Sul­ger GmbH. The telescope mirrors and optics will be supplied by the French company RE­OSC. The German contribution to the MERLIN ground segment will be provided by SCISYS Deutsch­land GmbH in close collaboration with the DLR DLR In­sti­tute of At­mo­spher­ic Physics and the The Re­mote Sens­ing Tech­nol­o­gy In­sti­tute (IMF). The MERLIN instrument will be installed on the French satellite bus 'Myriade Evolutions'. The MERLIN climate mission is scheduled to last for three years.

  • Martin Fleischmann
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    Ger­man Space Agen­cy at DLR
    Strat­e­gy and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions
    Telephone: +49 228 447-120
    Fax: +49 228 447-386
    Königswinterer Straße 522-524
    53227 Bonn
  • Dr Matthias Alpers
    Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion, Earth Ob­ser­va­tion
    Ger­man Aerospace Cen­ter (DLR)
    Ger­man Space Agen­cy at DLR
    Space Ad­min­is­tra­tion, Earth Ob­ser­va­tion
    Telephone: +49 228 447-585
    Fax: +49 228 447-747
    Königswinterer Straße 522-524
    53227 Bonn
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