Staying one step ahead

29 August 2017

Robots in the control room? Controlling satellites using virtual reality? Is this the future of spaceflight in 2030? How can and should the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt use its skills and expertise to position itself for the future?  

ESOC’s Head of Establishment, and ESA's Director of Operations, Rolf Densing, discussed these questions with Nicolas Bobrinsky, Head of ESA’s Space Situational Awareness (SSA) Programme, and ESOC's Development Manager Alexander Cwielong.

Autonomous navigation

Summertime is holiday time, but instead of sitting in traffic, fuming, could it be that we’ll be relaxing in an armchair with a cold drink while our cars whisk us off to the sea or the mountains? Densing believes this could be reality in the not-too-distant future. “Self-driving cars are a very current topic at the moment,” he says. And automation is a concept that is transferrable to other fields – such as spaceflight. “The satellites of the future will certainly be much more autonomous,” predicts Densing, who sees many changes ahead, including in the kind of work that is done at the ESOC centre.

He expects spaceflight to become much more standardised, involving a few large satellite manufacturers developing flexible modules and instruments.

Instead of a few satellites being individually produced, he thinks satellites will, in future, be off-the-shelf items with a few custom add-ons – another parallel with the automotive industry. “But large space probes will continue to be specially manufactured,” he stresses.

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ESA operations managers – a dedicated team working on the future of European spaceflightAccess the image

Densing continues, outlining a number of other scenarios, including that, in 2030, the control rooms at ESOC will have only one big display rather than lots of small ones, as is the case today − and the keyboard and mouse will be consigned to history.

Instead, the flight control team will be talking to intelligent systems that can control the fleet in space independently. “Or we will be wearing virtual reality goggles and, for example, closing the solar panels on the spacecraft with a simple hand gesture. Or maybe we will control manoeuvres using our minds.”

In a digitised world, who knows how soon this will be possible. But whatever systems we use in future, they all have to be designed by humans, and the work of today provides the foundation for tomorrow.

“Therefore, at ESOC, we have to help shape this future and always stay at least one step ahead,” emphasises Dr Densing.

Changing concepts

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LISA Pathfinder in spaceAccess the image

One of the first satellite mega-constellation launches will occur in 2018 thanks to the US-based OneWeb. Some 600 tiny cubesats will supply global internet from space. The company has allowed for a ten-percent satellite failure rate. “This concept is totally different from existing spaceflight,” says Alexander Cwielong, Head of Development at ESOC. The team at the control centre is proud of the fact that it has never lost a satellite during its nominal mission.

“The many CubeSats used by OneWeb and other organisations are pre-programmed,” adds SSA Programme Manager Nicolas Bobrinsky. “This means they need very little individual attention.” However, the huge number of tiny satellites presents new challenges for space operations, such as how to keep an overview of what is happening in space.

In contrast, however, Densing stresses that large scientific research satellites will remain part of ESA’s programme until 2030, referring, as just one example, to the LISA gravitational wave mission that is due to be launched in 2034 and whose test mission has recently been successfully completed. 

And there is already a noticeable trend toward more commercial missions, particularly in the areas of telecommunications, navigation and Earth observation. This will certainly continue and also affect scientific research. For example, US company Astrobotic is already offering services to scientists.

Astrobotic manufactures scientific instruments for researchers to accompany spaceflights as payloads, and also operates missions. The scientists simply receive the data they need but do not have to worry about the technical requirements. In future, samples from the surface of the Moon or from an asteroid could be available to order.

Partnerships

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Hundreds of miniaturised cubesats will create mega-constellations Access the image

ESA has a long tradition of working closely with industry, but this does not exclude the possibility of taking other innovative approaches, as exemplified by the current Grand Challenge. For example, how can we make the best use of our existing mining technology and experience in order to mine the Moon and asteroids?

Or, how advanced are robotics, and can the equipment that is needed for a future village on the Moon be 3D-printed in situ?

ESA is working on new ideas like these with innovators from society and industry. According to the ESA Space 4.0 initiative, spaceflight should not be an end in itself but, more than ever, a solution to global challenges such as climate change, communications, traffic management and health and nutrition issues.

“Data are the oil of our new millennium,” says Bobrinsky.

In future, businesses will buy satellites in the way that they buy company cars today. Space and spaceflight will be part of everyday business, agrees Densing.

“We have to recognise these future scenarios, and − at ESOC − it is our job to define them,” he adds.   

ESOC has to provide the expertise

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Expert knowledge: Space situational awareness is a growth areaAccess the image

Densing thinks one of ESOC’s roles is to position itself as the provider of specialist knowledge and operator of complex missions.

He compares ESOC to the automotive industry: “Other people make standard cars. But we build racing cars or heavy transporters.” The Centre could also take on more complex missions for other nations or organisations.

With its many years of experience in the field, ESOC is already home to the experts on issues such as space debris caused by the increase in space activities, the hunt for near-Earth asteroids and space weather.

These particular fields fall under the remit of Nicolas Bobrinsky as Head of the Space Situational Awareness programme. Funding for the SSA programme was doubled in December 2016 to 100 million Euro, a sign of its growing importance. “If satellites are an essential part of our infrastructure, then it’s a good idea to protect them.”

Since 2013, a team of ESA staff and contractors have been focusing on this area at ESOC – work that is important for security, communications and business on Earth.   

Predicting space weather for Europe

ESOC music videoAccess the video

“Every Euro we spend here saves the European economy six Euros,” says Bobrinsky. Solar flares can damage satellites, causing disruption to communications, navigation, weather forecasting, aviation and power grids on Earth.

Violent solar storms in 2003 led to satellite outages and at least 76 recorded incidents of damage. If such solar flares can be predicted in good time, satellites can be turned “out of the wind” and sensitive instruments switched off.

Energy companies and airports would have more warning of incidents and aeroplanes could be diverted to other routes. 

The high levels of radiation created by solar storms are hazardous to pilots, passengers and astronauts on the ISS, who have no magnetic field to protect them. ESOC head Densing explains: “Our aim is to be able to predict space weather for Europe.”

This requires the creation of surveillance systems in space and on the ground.

Coordinating with US scientists, ESA plans to send a satellite to what are known as the Lagrange points, the points between the Sun and the Earth where their gravitational pull cancels each other out and satellites can achieve a stable position.

A NASA probe could be situated at Lagrange point L1 (1.5 million km from Earth between the Sun and our planet), and the ESA spacecraft would travel to Lagrange point L5 (150 million km trailing behind Earth). The two missions will observe the Sun from different angles so that solar storms can be predicted more precisely and at an earlier stage.

The ESA mission could be launched around 2023, says Densing.

Asteroid warnings

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Nicolas Bobrinsky stresses the importance of increasing the warning time for asteroids that could impact the Earth.

He points to devastating events such as the Tunguska catastrophe of 1908, when a 40-metre asteroid with a destructive power one thousand times that of the Hiroshima bomb devastated an area measuring thousands of square kilometres. “We need special observation telescopes, and we have to take preventive action.” 

Fortunately such incidents occur only rarely, but the damage they can cause means they cannot be ignored.

In the past there have been three strategies for stopping objects hitting Earth: create a collision, deflect it or shoot it. In any event, the earlier we identify the objects, the more time we have to take action.

“We still have no workable technology in this respect. We are hoping to at least carry out tests in the near future,” says Densing. “We have to turn the spotlight on these potential incidents. The SSA programme is therefore a growth area for ESOC.”

ESOC expands

The ESOC Establishment has been growing for many years in terms of its facilities and personnel.

The first buildings date from the 1960s and have been replaced in recent years. In 2015 a new, environmentally friendly office building was built on ESOC’s expansion site on Robert-Bosch-Straße, across the street from the main campus – the first building to be “outside the fence”.

The cost of the first phase of the renewal is around 15 million Euro. The next project will be to pull down the 1970s building containing the control rooms and computer centre, but not until its replacement is completed in 2020. Here too, the budget is around 15 million Euro, according to ESOC Development Manager Cwielong.
 
ESOC is also growing on the ground

The modernisation of the existing facilities required a masterplan to be created for the 50,000 m2-plus ESOC site.

“There’s room for more expansion,” says Cwielong. The site has space for a 40-percent increase in use, and it doesn’t all have to be offices and control rooms – the masterplan also includes a visitor centre.

He sees ESOC as a “crystallisation point,” because collaboration is not restricted to the ESA site. The partnership with TU Darmstadt, the university, local enterprises and the ESA Business Incubation Centre shows that “we provide the know-how, but we and our partners can work together, carry out research, and teach from any location.”

Rolf Densing concludes: “We will overcome the challenges and seize every opportunity. We have the experts and the ability to turn ESOC into the leading centre for space operations, engineering and space situational awareness to 2030 and beyond.”

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