Many space applications, from secure communications to reliable satellite navigation, rely on high-precision instruments. Technologies based on quantum-mechanical effects enable previously unattainable levels of security and accuracy. The Institute of Quantum Technologies at the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) is developing these types of technologies and bringing them to prototype maturity in cooperation with industry. The Ulm-based institute is thus bridging the gap between fundamental research and applications. The DLR Institute was officially inaugurated at a digital event held on 27 May 2021.
"Quantum technologies are set to change our lives. They will form the basis for new innovations from DLR that will find their way into industry through technology transfer. This is our contribution towards strengthening Germany as a location for scientific research and industry," said Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla, Chair of the DLR Executive Board. "This site in Ulm offers an ideal research environment, embedded in local and regional scientific and technological organisations that have proven successful over many years. The founding and development of new DLR institutes would be impossible without extensive support from federal and state governments."
"Quantum technologies are crucial expertise for the future. We want Germany to become a world leader in this field over the next few years. Quantum technologies in the fields of Earth observation, satellite communications and navigation will play an increasingly important role in the future. The fields of application for our satellite infrastructure affect important sovereign security interests and are essential foundations for the functioning of our highly developed industrial society. It will therefore be important to modernise our satellite infrastructure quickly and consistently in order to secure our technological sovereignty in this field and avoid dependencies pon others," emphasised Thomas Bareiß, Parliamentary State Secretary in the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy. "I am pleased that with DLR we have a strong partner at our side with whom we will master these challenges and the competition. I am particularly pleased that the DLR site in Ulm is playing a central role in this. This will mean a noticeable impetus for the region and the whole of Baden-Württemberg and will strengthen this high-tech location."
"We want Baden-Württemberg to be at the forefront of value creation with quantum technologies. The DLR Institute of Quantum Technologies is an important transfer bridge between research and industry. It will make an important contribution to creating new industrial pillars in the region with quantum-based hardware and software solutions. Therefore, I am of course particularly pleased that Ulm will also play a significant role within DLR in the implementation of the German Federal Government's quantum computing initiative,” said Nicole Hoffmeister-Kraut, Minister of Economic Affairs, Labour and Housing for the state of Baden-Württemberg.
At present, there are over 40 DLR researchers working on topics in the field of quantum technologies. Over the coming years, they will be joined by approximately 200 additional personnel. The Ulm-based institute is playing a pioneering role in this area, alongside the DLR Institute for Satellite Geodesy and Inertial Sensing in Hanover and the Galileo Competence Center in Oberpfaffenhofen. It is supporting the development of expertise in a key area of technology that is important for maintaining Germany’s position as a location for industry.
"Quantum technologies will be used in metrology and geodesy as well as in the operation of communications satellites," explained Hansjörg Dittus, Member of the DLR Executive Board for Space Research and Technology. "Supporting research is also carried out in Ulm to make quantum technologies usable by industry. One way to do this is through DLR's technology transfer programme."
A new generation of clocks offering precision time measurement and position determination
The COMPASSO project is a key area of activity at the DLR institute in Ulm. It focuses on the development of optical clocks. This next generation of atomic clocks offers even greater precision in time measurement – at least 100 times greater, in fact. This technology can be used on satellites, for example, and can make navigation systems much more effective and reliable, as it allows the derivation of position information with an accuracy of one or two centimetres. Particularly precise position sensing is necessary for a great many future-oriented applications, just a few examples of which are driverless cars, maritime navigation and autonomous air taxis and transport drones. Sensors on satellites that measure Earth's gravitational field or monitor climate change also benefit from the extreme precision of this means of determining time.
One of the main challenges for the team at the DLR Institute of Quantum Technologies is to make these technologies suitable for spaceflight. They must therefore be as compact, robust and durable as possible. For this reason, special lasers and new materials are being used, including high-tech ceramics. These deform only minimally when experiencing changes in temperature. In order to test the system in Earth orbit, DLR is planning the COMPASSO space mission on the International Space Station (ISS), to take place in 2024. The instrument will be tested over the course of a year on the Bartolomeo external platform. The project partners include Airbus, Menlo Systems, SpaceTech and Tesat-Spacecom.
Long-term security – quantum communications and quantum cryptography
Technological breakthroughs in the field of optical components and their miniaturisation also enable advances in the fields of quantum communications and quantum cryptography. Both are also key areas of focus at the new DLR Institute in Ulm. Quantum computers could decipher many of the encryption algorithms currently in use. Quantum cryptography uses quantum physics to generate secret keys. It can be used in satellite communications but is also suitable for protecting communications via fibre-optic cables. These methods could make data safe for a long time to come, regardless of progress in the fields of quantum computing or mathematics. Encryption that is reliable over the long term is essential to protect critical infrastructure such as supply networks, government institutions, banks and the healthcare system. DLR is working closely with industrial companies to develop the necessary technologies and make them ready for the market.