From European Space Agency: “Steps to make a mission”

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From European Space Agency

ESA is Europe’s space agency in which 22 Member States work together to achieve results that no individual nation can match.

As one of the few agencies worldwide that operates across the full spectrum of space activities, we don’t do ‘routine’. As an operational research and development agency, each new space mission marks a significant step forward on what has gone before.

ESA flies the ‘never-done-before’ scientific missions, like Huygens and Rosetta, accepting and managing the risk that no others can assume, to take European scientists where they need to go.

ESA/Huygens Probe from Cassini landed on Titan

ESA Rosetta annotated

We fly the orbiting observatories, like GAIA, XMM-Newton and Integral, that serve researchers worldwide and help humanity understand the fundamental features of our Universe, like galaxies, black holes and gravitational waves.

ESA/GAIA satellite

ESA/XMM Newton


Closer to home, we fly the first-of-a-kind missions that prove the concepts for the development of valuable services for European and global citizens, to be handed over to partners for subsequent development, leaving ESA free to take its next steps into space.

In future, we plan to fly cutting-edge missions that will monitor our Sun for potentially harmful space weather, prove asteroid deflection techniques and help keep spaceflight sustainable for future generations.

So how do we plan, make and run new ESA missions?

Most European citizens assume, with good cause, that ESA missions take shape and fly to their destinations with little worry or bother, as if by effortless magic. Click through the following images to read the true story of how this ‘magic’ really occurs – and become one of the insiders who know how we make it all happen.

Next part: Investing in the basics of space

ESA’s Cheops exoplanet-observing mission during testing inside the Maxwell electromagnetic compatibility chamber.

Any space mission can only be said to be a success if its results make it back to Earth for use by those who need them. So for instance, Basic Activities also supports ESA’s Earth Observation programme, tasked with providing European researchers and institutional users with standardised access to long-term Earth observation data.

As the observing capabilities of these missions increases, then the size of available data grows in turn, and the challenge of distributing these data usable in a practical way becomes more daunting. ESA’s response has been cloud-based ‘Thematic Exploitation Platforms’ providing an online environment to access information, processing tools and computing resources for community collaboration.

Since long-time series of datasets are needed to determine changes in our planet’s climate, it is vital that Earth observation satellite data and other Earth science data are preserved for future generations and are still accessible and usable after many years.

EDRS relaying Copernicus Sentinel Earth observation data via laser links

11: Sharing knowledge and keeping Earth’s memory

Any space mission can only be said to be a success if its results make it back to Earth for use by those who need them. So for instance, Basic Activities also supports ESA’s Earth Observation programme, tasked with providing European researchers and institutional users with standardised access to long-term Earth observation data.

As the observing capabilities of these missions increases, then the size of available data grows in turn, and the challenge of distributing these data usable in a practical way becomes more daunting. ESA’s response has been cloud-based ‘Thematic Exploitation Platforms’ providing an online environment to access information, processing tools and computing resources for community collaboration.

Since long-time series of datasets are needed to determine changes in our planet’s climate, it is vital that Earth observation satellite data and other Earth science data are preserved for future generations and are still accessible and usable after many years.

(Photo: Calculating the deployment of Mars Express’s MARSIS radar antenna)

2: Investing in the basics of space

Long-term success comes down to ESA’s ‘Basic Activities’, which amount to the entire mandatory element of the ESA budget, other than the Science Directorate. They are mandatory because they are not only important but essential, a key ingredient in the magic formula behind ESA’s historic achievements.

Essentially Basic Activities are part of ESA’s ‘membership fee’ but this investment results in solid benefits for Member States, their scientists and their industries, as well the optional ESA programmes – such as Earth observation and exploration missions.

Basic Activities comprise a portfolio of ESA undertakings that stay invisible most of the time because they simply work – and work well.

These range from laboratories, ground stations and control facilities to European-wide early-stage technology development efforts, actions to support innovation and standardisation, highly secure networks and IT infrastructure and cybersecurity.

The global deep-space communication antenna network supported by Basic Activities is second only to NASA’s. Basic Activities also underpins a world-beating array of laboratories and test infrastructure – including the largest satellite test centre in Europe.

Basic Activities is also the source of intangible assets such as decades of accumulated expertise across an enormous range of skillsets, like highly-precise navigation through the Solar System or testing and developing technologies that will enable Europe’s autonomous access and exploitation of space.

All these essential resources, supported through Basic Activities, are also at the disposal of those who enable them: ESA Member States, their national agencies and their companies.

Without them, no ESA mission would fly.

Next part: First contact with new ideas

(Photo: 1.5 tonne lunar base building block, 3D printed with simulated lunar material as part of a Discover & Preparation programme project)
3: First contact with new ideas

ESA’s first contact with promising new concepts comes through its Discovery & Preparation activities. The Discovery part is at the entrance of ESA’s innovation pipeline: we use it to peer – together with academia and industry – beyond the immediate planning horizon.

To take the longest of looks ahead, ESA’s Advanced Concepts Team – a rotating group of PhD researchers – undertakes small research projects into fledging concepts, novel technologies and new approaches to space.

These allow Europe’s space sector to stay abreast of emerging new capabilities before they become evident. They range from entirely autonomous intelligent spacecraft to nature-mimicking ‘biomimetic’ engineering solutions, light-trapping nanostructures for enhanced solar cells to solar power satellites able to keep Moon rovers alive in frigid lunar darkness.

ESA is proposing to its Member States methods of radically opening up our early-phase research and development, including the widening of our innovation pipeline to new participants, to draw maximum benefit from the development of the space sector embodied by the ‘New Space’ movement. One way of achieving this is through its new Open Space Innovation Platform, which sources ideas through technical challenges.

Next part: Mission design

4: Mission design
(Photo: A session at the CDF)

Satellites designed to work in unknown hostile environments are the ultimate example of ‘form follows function’: no two missions are alike.

Any initial idea needs fleshing out through the setting of solid requirements: what are all the needs of the mission to best achieve its set goal? Where will it be going in space? What instrumentation payload will it require, how much onboard power is needed and how will its results be returned to Earth?

Experts must analyse every moment of a mission’s planned journey, from understanding its destination (A comet? An asteroid? A planet?) or fixed orbit (Low-Earth orbit? Geostationary orbit? Or out into deep space?) and selecting its launch vehicle and fixing its precise lift-off time to mapping out all its planned manoeuvres. This all provides vital data for the actual design of the spacecraft and also for the mission control systems and stations on the ground.

ESA’s BepiColombo mission, for instance, will perform nine planetary flybys to obtain vital gravity boosts before entering Mercury orbit – and each must be mapped out in 3D to just a few kilometres’ accuracy.

ESA/JAXA Bepicolumbo in flight illustration Artist’s impression of BepiColombo – ESA’s first mission to Mercury. ESA’s Mercury Planetary Orbiter (MPO) will be operated from ESOC, Germany

ESA’s Concurrent Design Facility, based at its technical centre in the Netherlands, gathers teams of experts to perform such ‘pre-Phase A’ studies of proposed missions, using networked systems to work together in real time, establishing a workable set of mission requirements which can then be passed to European industry through ‘invitations to tender’.

Mission development proceeds in terms of ‘Phase A’ – meaning initial industrial contracts, sometimes undertaken in parallel – to ‘Phase B’ when a single mission design reaches a preliminary buildable form.

In parallel, ESA specialists in space debris will assess the planned design, ensuring anything set to orbit Earth will be safely disposed of at the end of its mission, complying with debris guidelines and ensuring the continued safety of commercially and scientifically valuable orbits.

Other teams will ensure spacecraft can make use of specific frequencies for communications, a complex process involving direct liaison with the International Telecommunications Union to comply with international laws and standards and avoid interference with other satellites.

Next comes ‘Phase C’ when the spacecraft design is finalised, then ‘Phase D’ when it is actually built. ‘Phases E and F’ cover mission operations then finally disposal. ESA teams oversee progress through these phases, working with their industrial partners, with ESA technical experts embedded into each such team.

Next part: Inventing tomorrow

(Photo: Next generation solar cell with 30% efficiency)
5: Inventing tomorrow

Missions under development or planned of the future require a steady stream of new technologies. ESA channels around 8% of its overall budget into technology R&D but our single most important and influential programmes is the early-stage Technology Development Envelope, supported through Basic Activities.

This is the Agency’s basic ‘ideas factory’ across all areas of spaceflight, converting promising concepts into working laboratory prototypes, ready to be taken further by follow-on ESA programmes.

Projects are undertaken by European academia and industry under ESA supervision. Recent examples include an unprecedented 30% more-efficient spacecraft solar cell, an air-breathing engine for low-flying satellites, optical communications to boost data rates from deep space, parachute designs for Mars landings and a satellite whose sole mission is enabling European industry to flight-test innovative software.

Some technology development projects are undertaken specifically to meet the needs of missions to come, called ‘technology push’, systematically de-risking their development by proving essential elements work as planned.

Others take place as part of ESA’s cross-cutting initiatives focused on (a) Advanced Manufacturing, for novel materials and production processes, (b) ‘Design 2 Produce’ for digitalization of manufacturing, (c) Clean Space to safeguard the orbital and Earth environments, (d) adopting artificial intelligence and machine learning for innovative mission control techniques that enhance spacecraft and ground-station resource management and the ‘health care’ and diagnostics of the spacecraft and its ground systems, and (e) cybersecurity for secure space systems.

Next part: Setting standards for space

(Photo: Space component microsections for quality checks)
6: Setting standards for space

When companies manufacture components, systems or entire satellites for space they follow a single technical ‘recipe book’ that ESA helps write and keeps updated.

We are a leading member of a body called the European Cooperation for Space Standardization, an initiative to develop a single set of user-friendly standards for all European space activities, from project management and parts manufacturing to the testing of both hardware and software.

This results in continual improvements in the quality, functional integrity and compatibility of all space projects, while reducing costs. It also helps define whole new markets, by ensuring parts from different companies end up being fully interoperable.

As a practical example of ECSS in effect, the top solderers in Europe receive training in these standards in order to work on ESA missions.

On the international level, ESA represents Europe in the ‘Consultative Committee for Space Data Systems’ with our international partners. Its technical standards enable true cooperation through interoperability for the benefit of national agencies, established space companies and new commercial space actors.

Through this committee for instance, ESA’s Mars Express in orbit around the Red Planet can relay data from NASA’s Curiosity rover on the surface, as can ESA’s Trace Gas Orbiter. Similarly ESA ground stations can be used to communicate with missions of our partners and vice versa.

ESA is also the driving force behind the European Space Components Coordination, a set of processes that among other benefits, produces a ‘European Preferred Parts List’ – a regularly updated list of fully-qualified, high-performance parts for use in space. Its existence boosts mission reliability and makes European companies more competitive in global markets.

Next part: Ground tracking stations

(Photo: ESA’s New Norcia Deep Space Antenna-1 in Australia)

7: Ground tracking stations

ESA’s mission operations infrastructure, funded by all Member States as part of the Agency’s Basic Activities, comprises world-class technology assets that allow ESA to operate its fleet of spacecraft anywhere in that European scientists need to go.

Included in the infrastructure is a planet-spanning network of tracking stations, dubbed ESTRACK. The essential task of all our stations is to communicate with spacecraft, transmitting commands and receiving scientific data and spacecraft status information.

This network operates 24 hours per day, year round, and comprises a series of smaller-sized stations to link frequently orbiting Earth missions with ground controllers as well as the ‘big iron’ – three start-of-the-art 35 m-diameter dish antennas that allow ESA to locate and keep in touch with spacecraft that are hundreds of millions of kilometers away from Earth.

These three are located in Australia, Spain and Argentina, providing 360-degree coverage for missions going virtually anywhere.
Our technically advanced stations can track spacecraft circling Earth, watching the Sun, orbiting at the scientifically crucial Sun-Earth Lagrange points or voyaging deep into our Solar System.

All stations are operated centrally from ESA’s ESOC mission control centre in Darmstadt, Germany, using a sophisticated remote control and automation system to reduce personnel costs and boost efficiency.

ESA experts ensure that the stations are operated, maintained and upgraded with the latest technology – and that they comply with international data standards (which ESA helps define). This means our stations can support missions from NASA, JAXA and other agencies, and vice versa, reducing cost and risk for all.

Next part: Europe’s best space labs


8: Europe’s best space labs

Mission development is supported not only by specialist technical teams but also through a suite of well-equipped laboratories at ESA establishments, especially ESTEC in the Netherlands, and across Member States. These focus on all aspects of the space environment, materials and component testing, instrumentation and propulsion testing and the development of innovative spaceflight operations tools and techniques, based on the latest artificial/virtual reality tools.

These unique resources, supported through Basic Activities, include a wide variety of test chambers, a powerful array of microscopes and precision measuring devices, a CT scanner for components, a laser-based simulator recreating the corrosive ‘atomic oxygen’ encountered atop Earth’s atmosphere and the flattest floor in Europe, used for testing microgravity behaviour in two dimensions.

For missions, the labs check each and every item, instrument and piece of software to be used in space both individually and collectively, verifying their suitability for space by simulating orbital conditions as closely as possible. If an item fails during development or testing – from an individual wire split to a software anomaly – then detailed analysis is performed to find the route cause.

Test facilities elsewhere at ESA ensure a satellite’s ‘ground segment’ – the complete chain of hardware and software needed on the ground to control a mission in orbit – can be simulated in a safe, offline environment, providing mission teams with ways to test and validate commands and onboard procedures before being sent up to a functioning satellite.

Next part: Europe’s largest satellite test centre

(Photo: MetOp-C’s payload module being lowered into ESTEC’s Large Space Simulator)
9: Europe’s largest satellite test centre

In the same way that individual components and systems are tested to ensure their readiness for the violence of launch and the vacuum and temperetures extremes of space, the same is true of complete satellites.

That is the task of a 3000 sq. m cleanroom complex nestled in sandy dunes along the Dutch coast, filled with test equipment to simulate all aspects of spaceflight: the ESTEC Test Centre.

Its major infrastructure includes Europe’s biggest vacuum chamber, equipped with a Sun simulator with liquid nitrogen run through its walls to reproduce space conditions; Europe’s loudest sound system, used to blast satellites with simulated launch noise and Europe’s most powerful hydraulic shaker table, reproducing launcher vibrations equivalent to a major earthquake.

Next part: Taking control and staying in touch

(Photo: ESOC’s main control room)
10: Taking control and staying in touch

Once a spacecraft is released from the rocket that boosts it into orbit, the spotlight is onto the men and women controlling the mission from the main control room of ESA’s European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany.

Every mission is assigned a Flight Control Team, comprising engineers and technicians specialising in each of the mission’s technical areas, including attitude and orbit control, power, thermal management and onboard computer systems. They are led by an experienced Spacecraft Operations Manager, and are supported in turn by an extended ‘team of teams’ of experts working in areas such as highly precise flight dynamics, sophisticated software systems and high-tech ground tracking stations.

They provide oversight for their missions 24 hours per day, year round, using tools, systems and apps developed by European industry for the unforgiving, no-second-chances environment of mission control.

Many of these experts are sourced from European industry and, for each new mission, everyone must undergo a rigorous, months-long training and simulation campaign to measure the knowledge of each individual and test their combined ability to handle any contingency, whether it occurs just above in Earth orbit or hundreds of millions of kilometres away – when minutes matter and decisions have consequences.

All this is only possible through the capabilities provided through ESA’s mission operations infrastructure, funded by the Basic Activities resources provided by Member States.

Flying the spacecraft is made possible through cutting-edge software systems, while operational simulator systems capable of fully simulating the spacecraft and its environment enables team training in advance of the launch and supports them during routine and contingency operations.

ESA’s Flight Dynamics teams and systems – among the world’s best – are capable of computing highly-precise manoeuvres such as orbital insertion, planetary flybys, collision avoidance manoeuvres and landing operations.

All this information is fed into the mission control system, which is the primary interface for the flight control team to send commands to their spacecraft and interpret the data sent back from onboard systems.

Increasingly missions – such as ESA’s Swarm trio, the Cluster quartet and the European Union’s Copernicus Sentinels – are being operated in formations made up of two, three, four or more satellites, making the ongoing task of flight control and flight dynamics highly challenging.

Finally the mission operations infrastructure also enables vital services such as space debris collision avoidance, precise navigation and safeguards against potentially harmful space weather.

And ESA share what we know.

Mission control infrastructure, expertise and know-how are regularly exchanged with partner space agencies – and are increasingly provided to new space actors such as universities and commercial startups planning missions around Earth, to the Moon and beyond.

Next part: Sharing knowledge and keeping Earth’s memory

ESA Basic Activities at Space19+

(Photo: ESA’s Materials and Electrical Components Lab)

ESA Basic Activities at Space19+

For ESA’s next Ministerial Council, Space19+, set for the end of this year, the Agency is asking Europe’s space ministers for a substantial investment for its core Basic Activities, helping to support a new generation of space missions as efficiently as possible. ESA’s Basic Activities have three main objectives: to enable the future through early stage research and development, commencing the Agency’s seamless grid of innovation; develop and maintain ESA’s common infrastructure and expertise; and, develop, preserve and disseminate knowledge for European capacity building and sustainable growth – inspiring and promoting creativity.
Credits: ESA

ESA Basic Activities at Space19+

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The European Space Agency (ESA), established in 1975, is an intergovernmental organization dedicated to the exploration of space, currently with 19 member states. Headquartered in Paris, ESA has a staff of more than 2,000. ESA’s space flight program includes human spaceflight, mainly through the participation in the International Space Station program, the launch and operations of unmanned exploration missions to other planets and the Moon, Earth observation, science, telecommunication as well as maintaining a major spaceport, the Guiana Space Centre at Kourou, French Guiana, and designing launch vehicles. ESA science missions are based at ESTEC in Noordwijk, Netherlands, Earth Observation missions at ESRIN in Frascati, Italy, ESA Mission Control (ESOC) is in Darmstadt, Germany, the European Astronaut Centre (EAC) that trains astronauts for future missions is situated in Cologne, Germany, and the European Space Astronomy Centre is located in Villanueva de la Cañada, Spain.

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