Successful launch of the climate research mission GRACE Follow-On
Satellite pair with novel laser interferometer from Hannover reaches Earth orbit
On 22nd of May, 2018 at 12:47 local time (21:47 CEST) the GRACE Follow-On satellite duo was launched into space with a Falcon 9 rocket from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. GRACE Follow-On is a joint project of NASA with German partners, which are led by the German Research Centre for Geosciences. It will continue the successful GRACE mission, which ended in 2017: precisely measuring the Earth’s gravity field and its changes to observe indicators of climate change. A laser interferometer on board developed under lead of the Max Planck Institute for Gravitational Physics (Albert Einstein Institute; AEI) will significantly increase the measurement precision. The interferometer is the first such instrument between two satellites in space. It is not only meant to be a pilot project for similar future missions, but also a pilot project for LISA, the planned gravitational-wave observatory in space.
GRACE Follow-On is a joint project of NASA and German partners led by the German Research Centre for Geosciences. It is the improved successor to the successful GRACE mission which operated from 2002 to 2017.
The LRI is a cooperation between NASA and German partners, with the German contribution led by the AEI. The LRI concept, its prototypes and technical specifications were done at the AEI. AEI researchers have been heavily involved in developing and testing the flight hardware. The development of the LRI is based on a longstanding partnership between AEI and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. If the laser instrument stands the test future missions could rely solely on the more precise laser interferometers instead of microwave interferometers.
The German contributions to the LRI include the entire optical system, consisting of a steering mirror, built by Hensoldt (previously Zeiss) in Oberkochen and the optical bench from SpaceTech GmbH in Immenstaad, opto-electronics from the German Aerospace Center (DLR) in Berlin-Adlershof, and electronic systems from Apcon AeroSpace & Defence in Neubiberg near Munich. SpaceTech GmbH is responsible for the industrial part of the entire German LRI contribution. The DLR Institute of Space Systems in Bremen developed and delivered calibration and testing instruments. Both satellites were built on behalf of NASA by Airbus Defence & Space in Immenstaad. Mission control for GRACE Follow-On is the German Space Operations Centre (GSOC) in Oberpfaffenhofen near Munich.