Researchers from Jena reach for the stars

Start-ups, companies, research institutions and politics networking at Fraunhofer IOF


Whether high-precision optics in the James Webb telescope or a mirror telescope for Earth observation on the ISS – photonics researchers from Jena are involved in many aerospace missions. On August 25, representatives from research, industry and politics met at the Fraunhofer Institute for Applied Optics and Precision Engineering IOF to discuss current challenges in the field. Among them was Federal Government Coordinator for German Aerospace Policy, Dr. Anna Christmann (Bündnis 90/DIE GRÜNEN).

“Jena has been a hotspot of German optics and photonics research for 200 years. We provide key technologies for a wide variety of markets – ranging from mobility to medical technology. In view of current challenges such as climate change and data security, however, photonics applications for aerospace in particular will become increasingly important in the future,” says Prof. Andreas Tünnermann, Director of Fraunhofer IOF.

With extensive photonics know-how, scientists from Jena want to contribute to meeting these challenges – for example, by researching quantum-encrypted satellite communication or developing instruments for climate observation. Through start-ups and close networking between research and industry, a true “innovation ecosystem” has emerged in Jena. Members of this network met on August 25 to exchange ideas at the Fraunhofer Institute in Jena.

“In Jena, we have managed to successfully transfer knowledge from many decades of research to industry. This makes us a good example of how cooperation and transfer can work,” said Dr. Matthias Beier, founder of SPACEOPTIX GmbH. The Fraunhofer IOF spin-off developed a reflecting telescope that measures surface temperatures from the ISS and thus facilitates conclusions about the global climate and the water balance of various regions. “This project shows what targeted funding by politics can make possible,” added Dr. Sebastian Händschke, project manager of the Digital Innovation Hub Photonics. The Hub, funded by the Thuringian Ministry of Economy, Science and Digital Society, supported the founders in launching their start-up.

The guests from the German government who were present at the event were impressed. Member of the Bundestag Dr. Anna Christmann, who is both the Government's Coordinator for German Aerospace Policy and the Federal Ministry of Economics and Climate Action’s Commissioner for Digital Economy and Start-Ups, visited the institute and exchanged views with the participants about Jena as a central aerospace hub in Germany. “It is extremely exciting to get to know such innovation ecosystems like the one in Jena,” Christmann explained.

But despite all the enthusiasm about the multifaceted photonics research at the site, current challenges such as energy security, ways to achieve CO2-neutral research and a shortage of skilled workers were also discussed critically. “We need programs that attract young, international specialists and offer them the opportunity to develop their own ideas and shape Germany as a research location,” Prof. Tünnermann demanded, highlighting Jena as an ideal model region for corresponding projects. Close links between university, research institutes and industry offer young scientists unique career opportunities here – whether in research or in their own company.

Anna Christmann visits the Fraunhofer IOF
© Fraunhofer IOF
Dr. Anna Christmann (Member of the German Bundestag, Federal Government Coordinator for German Aerospace, BMWK Commissioner for the Digital Economy and Start-Ups), Dr. Heiko Knopf (Deputy Federal Chairman of Bündnis 90/Die Grüne) and Prof. Andreas Tünnermann (Director of Fraunhofer IOF) in conversation about current challenges in research.

Ranging from climate change to the big bang: ongoing space projects at Fraunhofer IOF

Fraunhofer IOF is currently involved in a wide range of space projects. For the James Webb Telescope, for example, the institute contributed high-precision mirrors. The largest and most powerful space observatory in the history of mankind sent the first images from the depths of space back home to Earth as recently as July, causing great excitement among an international community of researchers and astrophiles. The images showed galaxies whose light had traveled through space for up to 13 billion years – dating back to the Big Bang.

The EnMAP environmental mission, in contrast, is turning its gaze toward the future. Germany's first hyperspectral satellite will be used to analyze the consequences of climate change and make potential natural hazards visible. A total of eleven mirrors as well as various optical layers for telescope and spectrometer optics were manufactured for the project at Fraunhofer IOF.

Upcoming projects include the ESA JUICE mission planned for 2023 to explore Jupiter's moon Ganymede. Fraunhofer IOF researchers were involved in the realization of a high-performance telescope.