September 1, 2020

Origin and Early Years of the German Remote Sensing Data Center DFD

as experienced by Prof. Winfried Markwitz, 1st DFD Director (1980-1996)


Winfried Markwitz

The German Remote Sensing Data Center DFD has its roots in the German Space Operations Center GSOC in Oberpfaffenhofen. Since GSOC was conceived to provide support exclusively for national satellite projects, such as AZUR, AEROS, HELIOS and SYMPHONIE, this facility was increasingly existentially threatened in the second half of the 1970s after the founding of ESA in 1975 during a phase of the very distinct Europeanisation of German space activities. For political reasons new national space projects were no longer financed or had to be carried out primarily as European programmes, so a search began for a new range of tasks. The rapidly developing field of earth observation from space offered a solution.

When in the mid-1970s the German Test and Research Institute for Aviation and Space Flight DFVLR, as the parent institution was then named, initiated the era of remote sensing projects with an earth science aerial measurement programme, GSOC was also a participant. It was given the responsibility to set up and operate image conversion equipment for processing the analogue image data recorded from aircraft, as well as a photo lab and a data management system.

Almost at the same time ESA's Earthnet Programmme started in Europe. It initially focused on acquiring, processing and distributing the data from NASA's Landsat programme, which began in 1972. GSOC was selected by the then Ministry of Science in 1976 as the corresponding German “National Point of Contact” NPOC. Its most important responsibilities were to liaise between ESA and national users of the data, and to encourage use of these data in Germany.

Shortly afterward, the German Research Foundation approved a GSOC proposal to establish and operate a Meteosat image processing facility. This meant that the weather satellite data routinely acquired at the Weilheim ground station could be scientifically processed in cooperation with the German atmospheric research community.

All these tasks were so successfully realised that in 1980 ESA gave GSOC the responsibility to process and distribute the data acquired in Europe by the first US civilian SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) satellite, SEASAT. With these remote sensing projects a promising new field of activity could then be established at GSOC.

Fortunately, manned spaceflight had also gained a foothold in Europe. Germany was involved, and from then on it again financed new national space projects. GSOC was once more a desirable partner thanks to its wide-ranging expertise. Continuity of GSOC operational tasks, especially in manned spaceflight, was assured by its participation in the “Spacelab-Simulator” Project in Köln-Porz, having responsibility for the German payload of the “First Space Lab Project”, and other subsequent manned spaceflight projects. But its duties also again included mission operations for unmanned national satellites like ROSAT.

GSOC was in the meantime on a firm financial footing and as a result of its many projects the staff had grown to almost 300 people. Given the structure of DFVLR at that time, a facility of this size was hard to manage, and competition for the required resources from the institution's budget was laborious. So we decided on a division of labour and initiated a successful reorganisation.

Setting up “Applied Data Technology“

On my suggestion, in 1980 the executive board created a new institute, “Applied Data Technology”, and specifically transferred to it GSOC's responsibilities for the field of “remote sensing" and for “Moraba”, a mobile rocket launching base. The associated staff were transferred from GSOC to the new facility. Not everyone was happy about these decisions, but they were necessary and made an important contribution to the development of the Oberpfaffenhofen research centre.

As the head of GSOC at the time, I had asked Prof. Jordan, then chairman of the executive board, for the entire process to be preceded by an intensive round of discussion. Prof. Jordan was known as quite a fan of data technology and microelectronics, but no friend of ‘management tasks’. That prompted me to respond to the given situation by suggesting a coordinated spin-off of some of the GSOC staff and the establishment of a new scientific-technical institute, “Applied Data Technology”. This proposal was accepted and carried out by the executive board. A group of image processing specialists from the former Institute of Telecommunications was also transferred to the new entity. I was appointed to lead it and GSOC was from then on led by Manfred Gass.

In addition, the new scientific-technical entity also took on data technology development assignments at the request of Prof. Jordan. These ranged from automating test beds and experiments to developing on-board computers for rocket payloads and Spacelab experiments to data recording systems for projects to mine alternative energies. But already in the first years the department increasingly concentrated on, and gained expertise in, remote sensing.

From “Applied Data Technology” to DFD

Participation in the ground segment of ESA's ERS-1 satellite was crucial for the evolution from “Applied Data Technology” to the “German Remote Sensing Data Center” DFD. From the beginning, the main emphasis was on processing data from the Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR) -- the most important sensor on board ERS–1. Building on the insights and experience gained with SEASAT and in the framework of studies commissioned by ESA, already in 1983 the technical foundation could be laid for future SAR processors, and preliminary work for ERS-1 could be carried out.

Simultaneously, the new institute began to expand its existing good contacts with users of remote sensing data in science, public offices, and industry. It became actively involved in university-level teaching and supervising apprenticeships with postgraduate students working for advanced degrees, as well as in applications-oriented pilot projects. What became very popular annual DFD user seminars were introduced.

The first appraisal by a committee of external reviewers in 1984 attested that the institute, which had a staff of some 100 employees at the time, had already achieved a top position in its field of activity in Europe. More concentration on remote sensing was urged, which resulted in corresponding activities being grouped together in an in-house DLR programme, to work toward a “German Remote Sensing Data Center” DFD, with two priorities. One was designing, setting up and operating ground segments (end-to-end, i.e., acquisition, processing, archiving and distribution) for projects in the national remote sensing programme. The other priority was advancing the use of remote sensing data by developing methodologies and realising application projects together with users from science, public offices, and industry. Both goals have considerably evolved over the years, but remain the present core responsibilities of DFD. Another measure toward concentration was the return of the Moraba unit to GSOC.

The institute participated in the 1984 SIR-B (Shuttle Imaging Radar) NASA project, in the analysis of data from the camera experiments conducted during the Giotto mission to Comet Halley in 1986, and in the ground segments for two remote sensing experiments: Microwave Remote Sensing Experiment MRSE and the metric camera on the first Spacelab mission FSLP.

Starting in 1985 the focus turned to preparatory work for participation in the ERS-1 ground segment, especially for D-PAF, a German Processing and Archiving Center for ERS-1, which was designed together with the German Geodetic Research Institute DGFI (later the German Research Centre for Geosciences GFZ) for SAR, radar altimeter, and PRARE (Precise Range and Range Rate) data. It was established in Oberpfaffenhofen in 1988 on behalf of ESA. Similar PAFs were also set up in England, France and Italy. Continuing and expanding PAF activities for the successor satellite ERS–2, DFD began to design for ESA a processor for spectrometer data -- which was later also realised -- and thereby laid the foundation for a new DFD focus, “Atmosphere”.

Parallel to assembling a PAF for ERS-1, in cooperation with IFAG (Institute of Applied Geodesy) and AWI (Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar Research) and under the technical oversight of the institute, together with German industry the south pole GARS O’Higgins receiving station was erected on the Antarctic Peninsula to acquire SAR data. In order to carry out this work, for the first time the institute used external project financing to a large extent -- a pattern that continued to make it possible to accept numerous interesting assignments and assure adequate growth. But two completely different occurrences had the most influence on the development of DFD.

The „Bavarian Initiative“

Bavarian Premier Max Streibl visits “Applied Data Technology”

As part of a large-scale funding measure known as the “Bavaria Initiative”, an expansion of the Oberpfaffenhofen centre was initiated in 1988 by the Bavarian state government and the Federal Ministry of Research and Technology. We were able to include the “Applied Data Technology” institute at almost the last minute.

Construction of the “Applied Data Technology” technical wing

Thanks to this measure, the just completed office building was extended to include a technology wing, which significantly improved our data technology infrastructure. This created the crucial foundation for participation in further European projects like ERS-2 and later ENVISAT and for successfully functioning as the German Remote Sensing Data Center DFD, as the institute was thereafter known to third parties, and was officially so named in 1993.

Integration of the GDR “Institute of Cosmos Research”

In the course of German reunification, the Institute of Cosmos Research of the former East Germany (GDR) was integrated into DLR at the initiative of DFD. The Neustrelitz satellite ground station in Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania was linked to DFD in 1992 and, as recommended also by the DLR Scientific-Technical Advisory Council, incorporated as the ‘Remote Sensing Station’ technical department. This was a step of great strategic significance.

In the course of prior contacts extending over several years and after several discussions which I held in a very pleasant and constructive atmosphere with the then deputy head of the Neustrelitz ground station, Hans-Dietrich “Dieter” Bettac, a set of tasks complementing DFD activities evolved for this new department. They included designing and operating a ground segment, initially for joint projects with Russia, especially for the joint PRIRODA missions (PRIRODA was the science module on the MIR space station); supervising local remote sensing projects; setting up and operating a reference station for satellite supported tracking and navigation; and undertaking the associated technical research and development activities, all of which was confirmed by the Scientific-Technical Advisory Council.

Premier of Mecklenburg–Western Pomerania Berndt Seite and DLR executive board chairman Prof. Walter Kröll at the dedication of the refurbished station in Neustrelitz

These valuable additions rounded off the range of DFD responsibilities and operations, in particular by expanding DFD's ground station network to include a centrally located ground station covering all of Europe. That this integration experienced some political and administrative hurdles goes without saying. Only after the personal intervention of Dieter Bettac with the then premier of Mecklenburg–Western Pomerania was a final decision forthcoming. After its integration in DFD the remote sensing Neustrelitz station was expanded and modernized. Starting in 1992, it was successfully employed for joint projects with Russia as part of the DFD ground segment. From 1995 on, data were also being acquired there from the ERS satellites, and the ground station was used for other ESA projects as well.

A personal comment in conclusion

After GSOC, DFD became my second great professional challenge in the then DFVLR, and  I accepted it gladly and with total commitment.

Both entities, GSOC and DFD, are highly successful today, internationally recognized, and, with some 500 employees, significant components of DLR's research centre in Oberpfaffenhofen. That I was able to contribute toward this result fills me with gratitude and delight.

I most heartily congratulate DFD on its 40th birthday and wish its leadership and all its employees in Oberpfaffenhofen and Neustrelitz much future success and always good fortune!

Winfried Markwitz