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Science & Exploration

N° 43–1998: ESA astronaut Gerhard Thiele from Germany assigned to his first flight

28 October 1998

The European Space Agency (ESA) and the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) are pleased to announce the assignment of Gerhard Thiele, as Mission Specialist, to the STS-99 flight. This Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (X-SAR/SRTM), dedicated to ecological mapping of the Earth's surface, is scheduled for September 1999.

Gerhard Thiele, a physicist, was trained as a Payload Specialist by the DLR and was involved in the German D2 mission as member of the back-up crew. During the D2 flight, he was responsible for communications between the astronauts on board the Space Shuttle Columbia and the scientists in the control centre at Oberpfaffenhofen, Germany. He has since started Mission Specialist training at NASA-JSC to qualify him for missions on the Space Shuttle and the International Space Station.

Following the ESA Council decision in March 1998 to set up a single European astronaut corps, Gerhard Thiele and four other astronauts from various national agencies have joined the ESA astronauts in that corps, now composed of 14 astronauts. Their home base is ESA's European Astronaut Centre in Cologne, Germany. They will prepare for mission opportunities available to ESA as the European partner in the International Space Station, and for missions agreed between European national agencies and the United States or Russia such as Thiele's.

For the SRTM mission, the Shuttle will have a complex arrangement of radar systems on board, including a high-tech instrument made in Germany. The mission's objective is to create a three-dimensional image of the Earth. For the first time the planet's surface will be simultaneously scanned from two different perspectives. Opening the cargo bay will bring our planet into sight of a 12-metre radar antenna and a second system, mounted on a 60-metre telescopic arm. With this configuration, a great technological challenge, the Earth can be viewed by two "radar eyes" at the same time. Both radar systems can receive the returning signal in more or less "stereo" mode. This is the mission's essential innovation.

Topographic surveying of the Earth supplies crucial basic data to solve many problems in the areas of geoscience and environmental protection. Radar is ideally suited for remote sensing, with two decisive advantages over conventional optical procedures: radar can "see" both at night and through cloud cover, so that a complete survey of the Earth's surface can be made in just a few days.

Topographic data and digital surface models obtained from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission will pave the way for a wealth of applications: digital altitude records will serve to improve processed products based on data delivered by other European environmental monitoring satellites and are a prerequisite for extremely precise cartographic products. Records of this kind can also be helpful in any extension of cellular telephone networks, above all in identifying optimum locations for transmitting masts.

Finally, disaster control management (e.g. in the case of flooding) also depends on such data for exact basic information on the situation in the areas affected. Weather forecasting and climate modelling will also benefit from exact topographic data. The six astronauts on board the Shuttle will have the difficult task of precisely extending the telescopic mast and aligning it with the antenna. They will also control the data recordings,a volume of almost 3000 gigabytes, that will provide an almost complete survey of the Earth's surface.

SRTM is a joint project of NASA, NIMA (National Image and Mapping Agency), DLR (German Aerospace Centre) and ASI (Italian Space Agency). NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) is responsible for development of the C-Band Radar Interferometer System, DLR for development of the X-Band Radar System. Dornier Satellite System, a subsidiary of Daimler-Benz Aerospace (Dasa, Munich), is the main industrial contractor for development of the X-SAR radar system.

A picture of Gerhard Thiele can be downloaded from DLR's homepage at the following address :

For further information, see the following Web pages:
* European Astronaut Centre: - ESA in general:

For further information, please contact :
Vanadis Weber (DLR) Tel.: 02203/6001 3068 Fax.: 02203/ 6001 3249 E-mail:
ESA Public Relations Division Tel. +33(0)1 53 69 71 55 Fax. +33(0)1 53 69 76 90