May 31, 2021 | Quantum technologies in space

Establishment of the new DLR Institute for Satellite Geodesy and Inertial Sensing

  • Bose-Einstein condensates, novel atomic clocks, laser and matter-wave interferometry are all promising quantum technologies with potential applications in space.
  • Satellites modernised with quantum technology offer huge potential for satellite-based Earth observation, communications and navigation.
  • The new DLR institute, with up to 120 employees, will establish itself in the Quantum Quarter of the University of Hannover.
  • Focus: Space, quantum technologies

Quantum-based measurement techniques are set to revolutionise satellite sensor systems in the future. Quantum sensors based on Bose-Einstein condensates, new kinds of atomic clocks, and laser and matter-wave interferometry are just some of the quantum technologies that are on the verge of routine application in space. Measurement technologies and sensor systems in space are seeing an unprecedented increase in precision and opening up previously untapped opportunities for applications, all as part of a second quantum revolution. In summer 2019, the DLR Senate agreed to create the Institute for Satellite Geodesy and Inertial Sensing, to be funded by the German federal government and the Federal State of Lower Saxony. The new Institute, made up of seven departments, is now being established in close collaboration with Leibniz University Hannover (LUH). By the end of the decade, it will have two new buildings and approximately 120 employees in the university's planned Quantum Quarter.

"Worldwide, quantum technologies are set to become major drivers of innovation and growth," emphasised Anke Kaysser-Pyzalla, Chair of the DLR Executive Board. "Thanks to the exemplary collaboration with the Federal State of Lower Saxony and Leibniz University Hannover, DLR’s new institute can now start making an important contribution to these future-oriented technologies."

"The establishment of the DLR Institute for Satellite Geodesy and Inertial Sensing in Hanover, in conjunction with the Galileo Competence Center in Oberpfaffenhofen and the DLR Institute of Quantum Technologies in Ulm, will create a centre of excellence for terrestrial and space-based quantum innovations," said Hansjörg Dittus, DLR Executive Board Member for Space Research and Technology. "Satellites upgraded with quantum technologies will be orders of magnitude more powerful than the current generation. They represent huge potential for satellite-based Earth observation, communications and navigation."

Inertial sensors may come in the form of acceleration or rotation rate sensors and may be used for tasks such as flight stabilisation and navigation. Quantum sensor systems based on matter-wave interferometry make it possible to measure rotation and acceleration with unprecedented long-term stability. Ultra-cold quantum gases such as Bose-Einstein condensates may be used for this purpose. At temperatures very close to absolute zero, an atomic cloud behaves like a single giant atom. These Bose-Einstein condensates can be observed macroscopically. Further development of this technology promises a future where there may be high-precision attitude control for satellites, distance determination for satellite swarms flying in formation, and even precise surveying of the gravitational field of Earth and other celestial bodies. Highly promising quantum optical methods of laser interferometry will also undergo further development at the new DLR Institute.

Thomas Jarzombek, Federal Government Coordinator of German Aerospace Policy, said: "Quantum sensors open up new possibilities. They measure physical parameters such as temperature, velocity and electric and magnetic fields with hitherto unimagined accuracy. They thus enable high-precision Earth observation from space. Not only does this allow us to investigate climate change more closely, but the economic potential is vast. For example, these techniques could be used it to search for deposits of raw materials, for agriculture and forestry, and to assess soil quality. Innovative medical diagnostic methods and treatment options are other potential areas of application for quantum sensors. The German Federal Government is funding the new DLR institute in Hanover as a means of supporting cutting-edge German research into quantum technologies. We are networking with other DLR locations, companies and start-ups from the very outset, with a view to facilitating both fundamental research and industrial applications for quantum technologies."

"Innovations in quantum technologies and quantum sensor systems can make a major contribution towards tackling challenges that impact society, such as climate change, water resources, energy supply, digitalisation, mobility and security, and also open up completely new prospects for space missions in future," said Björn Thümler, Lower Saxony's Minister for Science and Culture. "From the state's point of view, the creation of the DLR Institute for Satellite Geodesy and Inertial Sensing in Hanover is a huge step forward, as it means that quantum technologies will continue to be established and sustainably embedded in Lower Saxony. The Institute will build upon an excellent research environment, as over the last decade the state has invested over 200 million euros in the creation and operation of research laboratories and the recruitment and training of excellent scientists in this field of research. I am delighted that the new institute will make an important contribution towards the emergence of the next generation of quantum engineers."

Broad-based partnerships

The activities carried out by the new institute will be integrated into DLR-wide projects and collaborations with partners from research and industry in Germany, Europe and around the world. For example, DLR is already working with NASA on the BECCAL project, which examines Bose-Einstein condensates (BECs) under microgravity conditions in the Cold Atoms Lab (CAL) on board the International Space Station (ISS). The Institute has a core partnership with Leibniz University Hannover, where the new institute will initially rent office and laboratory space before moving into its new office and laboratory building in the Quantum Quarter towards the end of this decade. The planned Optical Frequency Measurement Department is expected to collaborate closely with the German National Metrology Institute (Physikalisch-Technische Bundesanstalt; PTB) in Braunschweig. The Relativistic Modelling Department will also be located at DLR's Bremen site, near the Center of Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (Zentrum für angewandte Raumfahrttechnologie und Mikrogravitation; ZARM).

Futuristic technology with qubits

© Production Perig / AdobeStock

The President of Leibniz University Hannover, Volker Epping, stressed the importance of cooperation between LUH and outside research institutions: "I am proud and delighted that, in addition to a number of other non-university partners, LUH will also be partnering with a DLR institute. This combining of expertise will enable the Institute, the university and the site to establish a leading international profile in the field of quantum technologies. I would like to thank everyone who has been responsible for or actively involved in promoting and making this new venture possible and wish all of the scientists a successful start at DLR in Leibniz University Hannover."

At present, the focus is on appointing the future director and the first heads of department for the DLR Institute for Satellite Geodesy and Inertial Sensing. Some 30 employees will already be working at the Institute by the end of 2021. The official opening is planned for later in the year.

"Initial research work for experiments to be conducted on the ISS from 2026 are already under way, in the form of the BECCAL project," says Wolfgang Ertmer, Founding Director of the DLR Institute for Satellite Geodesy and Inertial Sensing. "The Institute is also significantly involved in activities being considered by the European Commission relating to quantum gravimetric Earth observation. In addition, the Institute will contribute to DLR's expertise in the field of quantum computing and engage in collaborative projects with the Hanover-based Quantum Valley Lower Saxony e.V."

The Federal State of Lower Saxony has already approved 12 million euros in funding for the creation of the DLR Institute for Satellite Geodesy and Inertial Sensing. In future, the Institute will also receive 11 million euros of annual funding from the German Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy (Bundesministerium für Wirtschaft und Energie; BMWi), 890,000 euros from the Federal State of Lower Saxony, and 220,000 euros from the Federal State of Bremen.


Falk Dambowsky

Head of Media Relations, Editor
German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Corporate Communications
Linder Höhe, 51147 Cologne
Tel: +49 2203 601-3959

Jens Wucherpfennig

Corporate Communications, Göttingen and Hanover
German Aerospace Center (DLR)
Corporate Communications
Bunsenstraße 10, 37073 Göttingen
Tel: +49 551 709-2108

Prof. Dr. Wolfgang Ertmer

Founding Director
German Aerospace Center (DLR)
DLR Institute for Satellite Geodesy and Inertial Sensing
30167 Hanover