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Mapping the Earth in 3D

Artist's impression of the TanDEM-X and TerraSAR-X satellites

An artist's impression of the TanDEM-X and TerraSAR-X satellites flying in formation in Earth orbit.

  • Dual radar satellites in Earth orbit
  • Will create detailed map of the planet
  • Second satellite due for launch 21 June

The German radar satellite TanDEM-X has passed a series of tests and is on track for a lift-off aboard a Russian Dnepr launcher from the Baikonur space centre in Kazakhstan on 21 June 2010.

Together with the almost identical TerraSAR-X satellite, which has been operational since 2007, TanDEM-X will generate a digital elevation model of the Earth’s landmasses in unprecedented quality over the course of three years.

TanDEM-X and TerraSAR-X will form a radar interferometer. The satellites will fly in close formation at a separation of only a few hundred metres, enabling simultaneous terrain images from different perspectives.

The two satellites will measure the complete land surface of the Earth (150 million square kilometres). For a 12-metre grid (street width), height information will be determined with an accuracy of less than two metres.

A TerraSAR-X radar image of the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano in Iceland.

A TerraSAR-X radar image of the Eyjafjallajoekull volcano in Iceland.

Extensive tests have been conducted to demonstrate  TanDEM-X ‘s suitability for operation in space. These included electromagnetic compatibility, thermal-vacuum tests including Sun simulation, vibration and acoustic tests.

A special feature during the test campaign was the so-called ‘Boom-Release Test’ simulating the shock the satellite will receive when it unfolds its antenna in space.

Radar satellites are play an important role in mapping the Earth, as they work day and night and are unaffected by weather and clouds.

The fields of application for the data range from an increased efficiency in the production of oil, gas or minerals, improved crisis mission planning, and prediction of the impacts of disaster situations.

But first and foremost, in many countries all over the world, cartographers will be able to obtain improved height information.

Adapted from information issued by ESA / EADS Astrium / Jürgen Dannenberg.