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Our Excursion to ESOC

Inter­disci­pli­nary train­ing of stu­dents in all as­pects of a satel­lite mis­sion, from con­cep­tion to opera­tion char­acter­ise the Elite Grad­uate Pro­gram “Sat­ellite Tech­nolo­gy” at the Uni­versi­ty of Würzburg. To learn more about the prac­tice of oper­ating a sat­ellite mis­sion, the stu­dents visit­ed the Euro­pean Space Oper­ations Cen­ter (ESOC) in Darmstadt.

Getting to know ESA

Early in the morn­ing, more than 20 stu­dents to­gether with teach­ing staff of the Elite Grad­uate Pro­gram "Sat­ellite Tech­nolo­gy" start­ed their trip to Darmstadt to visit ESOC, the satel­lite con­trol center oper­ated by the Euro­pean Space Agency (ESA). Af­ter a short coffee break, ESA’s Spacecraft Oper­ations Man­ager Dr. Mar­cus Kirsch wel­comed the visi­tors in the press cen­ter.

He gave an in­sight­ful lec­ture about ESA’s ac­tivi­ties in gen­eral and after show­ing key as­pects of the organ­iza­tion itself, its budg­et, mem­ber states and sites, Dr. Kirsch im­pres­sively pre­sent­ed the suc­cess­ful histo­ry of launches and mis­sions.

Operation of satellites in daily practice

With many years of prac­tical expe­rience in oper­ating the now 20-ye­ar-old XMM-New­ton X-ray tele­scope, Dr. Mar­cus Kirsch was able to sub­stan­tiate his talk with useful prac­tical ex­am­ples.

He point­ed out that in order to guar­antee a suc­cess­ful mis­sion, when oper­ating the satel­lite, the safety of the satel­lite al­ways comes first. A high­light of the lec­ture was the report on an inci­dent in Octo­ber 2008, when the satel­lite was not re­sponding for sever­al days due to a com­po­nent failure in a switch. In ex­treme situa­tions like that, both – the team's many years of expe­rience and crea­tivity in iden­tify­ing the cause of the error – are re­quired and Dr. Kirsch demonstrated that in a very lively and im­pres­sive way.

An­other high­light was a live demonstra­tion of real-time te­leme­try by one of the tour guides and the stu­dents got to know how the data ap­pears on the laptop and how com­mands are sent to the satel­lite.

Tour through ESOC

In small­er groups the stu­dents were guid­ed through the con­trol rooms, in­clud­ing the Dedi­cated As­tron­omy Mis­sion Oper­ation Room and the Inter­plane­tary Mis­sion Oper­ation Room. From there, ESA oper­ates vari­ous mis­sions. Our stu­dents were very im­pressed by the Main Con­trol Room – known from nu­mer­ous satel­lite launches on TV-reports –, a model of Ro­setta with its lander Philae and a model of XMM New­ton in the 1:2 for­mat. Since the tour guides all worked on this satel­lite, they were able to share their ex-pe­rience on the spacecraft and could an­swer many tech­nical ques­tions on the mis­sion in-depth.

Interdisciplinary system engineering

The stu­dents in the Elite Grad­uate Pro­gram "Sat­ellite Tech­nolo­gy" should un­der­stand the entire­ty of a sat­ellite sys­tem through an inter­disci­pli­nary ap­proach. With in-depth knowledge of the dif­ferent sub­sys­tems of a satel­lite mis­sion, stu­dents in sys­tem engi­neer­ing should learn to find com­prom­ises if con­flicts be­tween the sub­sys­tems occur. Visits to vari­ous space facili­ties should sen­sitize the stu­dents to the vari­ous as­pects of a satel­lite mis­sion, also they get the chance to estab­lish con­tacts with poten­tial future col­la­bora­tion part­ners and em­ploy­ers.

Text: Hermann Helgert