The final frontier

Space has fascinated mankind for millennia. We have travelled from fantasies of aliens invading earth to the emerging reality of humans finally setting foot on the surface of Mars.

ABB’s involvement with space technologies started in the mid-1980’s. Since then, it has been working in over 50 space programs around the world. ABB’s optical measurement systems are currently orbiting the Earth measuring greenhouse gas emissions, ozone levels and predicting weather patterns.

Credit: NASA
Credit: NASA

Instruments made by ABB help in better understanding of Earth’s atmosphere, which is rapidly being modified by human-generated and natural emissions. They also provide high-quality data, which can be analyzed to improve the accuracy of weather forecasting, and predict the impact of rising temperatures and climate change.

The effects of global warming include more frequent, intense hurricanes and rainstorms. Extreme weather conditions pose risks to major regions of the world. ABB’s Fourier Transform Spectrometers (FTS), made by ABB’s Measurement & Analytics Business Unit in Quebec City, is a powerful tool for measuring properties of light over a specific portion of the electromagnetic spectrum. This technology can identify molecular “fingerprints,” which are basically the types of chemical bonds in a molecule.

For any given bond, there are several specific frequencies at which a molecule vibrates. This is the “fingerprint” that ABB’s technology detects and can provide a qualitative or quantitative measurement. Such measurements can be used to precisely measure temperatures and water vapour concentrations in the atmosphere, and use them to feed weather forecasting models.

ABB’s FTS instruments can be used with both low orbit and geosynchronous satellites at an altitude of 36,000 kilometers. Depending on the orbit, such instruments need varying degrees of sensitivity to accurately measure the atmosphere. FTS technology is robust and highly reliable, making it ideal for long-term operational missions.

ABB’s Measurement and Analytics business will deliver three infrared calibration sources to Airbus Defense and Space in Germany for the METOP-SG “A” satellites. The instrument is a multispectral imaging radiometer that will generate data about clouds, the Earth’s surface and aerosols. Meteorologists on the ground will utilize the data for more accurate weather forecasts. Scientists will be able to build better models to understand the impact of greenhouse gases on global warming. ABB’s instruments will be on board all future European weather satellites currently under development, for a total of nine additional satellite optical systems.

The Measurements & Analytics team in Quebec City has developed expertise in making sensitive spectrometers for weather satellites. The team has worked on instrumentation projects with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, the Canadian Space Agency (CSA) and the Japanese Aerospace Exploration Agency. ABB’s calibration systems, which were first developed in the late 1990s, are still successfully operational on satellites on-orbit.

ABB’s expertise with weather satellites makes it strongly placed to participate in mankind’s boldest endeavor: putting a man on Mars. After all, the FTS technology was originally designed to look into space, and then found its way into a whole range of other applications.

  • Mars has historically been unfriendly to humans’ attempts to reach it, with about half the attempts failing to reach there. Some of these failures happened because Mars was the first planet humans attempted to explore, and valuable lessons were learned over the years. In the last two decades, significant progress has been made, with four orbiters and landed missions providing stunning images of Mars as a world that resembles the Earth, having a complex geological history.
  • Currently, several space agencies and private companies are exploring ways to implement the next big step: sending humans to the planet and build colonies.
  • These projects will require solutions that ABB has strong expertise in. Under a contract with Canadian Space Agency, ABB has designed instruments for a Mars mission to detect the presence of molecular life. In future, when humans finally reach the red planet and start building a colony, controlling the quality of air will be of paramount importance. ABB makes analyzers that are very powerful tools to monitor the safety of air. ABB’s robust solutions for digital connectivity and energy efficiency will be needed on the way to Mars and after humans land there.

ABB has a valuable role to play in the future of space exploration, utilizing its leading role in the Energy and Fourth Industrial Revolutions. Such technologies are just another fascinating example of how the company is leading the way into the future. ABB has all the infrastructure, including eight cleanrooms and NASA certified labs, to build space hardware.

ABB’s expertise in the design and manufacture of space equipment will continue to provide early warning of climate change-related risks. They will enable space agencies to reach Mars, where future exploration could uncover evidence of life. As humans expand their presence into the solar system, ABB’s instruments will play a crucial part in future explorations, which could answer the long-standing mystery of whether there is life beyond Earth.

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