9 August 2022


Blog, Media Updates, MOIS, Space

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As RHEA Group celebrates its 30th anniversary, we look back at how the European space sector has developed over the past three decades.

RHEA was created by three engineers working on a contract for the European Space Agency’s (ESA’s) European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, and then expanded its activities into EUMETSAT. Paolo Ferri, who worked at ESOC for nearly 40 years, and Paul Counet, who has worked at EUMETSAT for 24 years, share insights into how these organizations have developed.

Space is now recognized as a global critical infrastructure. It is intrinsic to our everyday lives. Whether for communications, travel, banking, weather forecasting or food distribution, or feeding our ongoing quest for knowledge to understand the universe or explore new frontiers, we rely on space more than most of us realize.

European organizations such as the European Space Agency (ESA), the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT) and the European Union Agency for the Space Programme (EUSPA) are some of the main agencies responsible for providing the technologies, data and standards on which the European space sector now relies heavily.

Decades of change at ESOC

Main control room at ESOC, Darmstadt, Germany in 1998
ESOC control room in Darmstadt, Germany in 1998 © ESA – J. Mai

RHEA was created in June 1992 by three engineers providing operational services to ESOC, the operations heart of ESA. ESOC was itself created in September 1967, a decade after the world’s first satellite – Sputnik 1 – was launched, its plaintive radio beeps signalling that the era of space exploration had begun.

The first European mission to be operated from ESOC was ESRO-2B, launched in May 1968 with seven instruments onboard to detect cosmic rays, X-rays and protons. To date, ESOC has flown over 80 spacecraft, ranging from telecommunications satellites to weather, Earth observation and climate monitoring missions, as well as those exploring our Solar System and the universe. Many missions have been flown in collaboration with European and international partners.

ESOC control room in Darmstadt, Germany, in 2019
ESOC control room in Darmstadt, Germany, in 2019 © ESA – J. Mai

Paolo Ferri worked at ESOC for nearly four decades, starting his career as a scientist on the Exosat (European X-ray Observatory Satellite) mission in 1984. He moved into mission operations activities just 2 years later and became Head of Mission Operations in 2013, remaining in that role until he retired in 2021.

“Satellite operations have come a long way from when I first started in 1984. The mid-1990s was a period of dramatic change for ESOC, as it moved on from being run by the original pioneers – those who had seen the start of European spaceflight and communicated mainly by teletype. The 1990s was the dawn of a new space generation, which was reflected in a transformation for ESOC. New processes and automation were gradually introduced, and the communication and meteorological missions that were then ESA ones were taken over by the commercial sector and EUMETSAT respectively.

“In the late 1990s and into the early 2000s, ESOC saw the birth of pioneering missions such as Rosetta, Mars Express, XMM and Integral space telescopes, and Venus Express. Today ESOC flies around 25 satellites – as opposed to 20 years ago, when we were flying just three or four. This evolution was accomplished by implementing new automated processes, standards and technologies that now support the operators and dramatically reduce the manpower-intensive tasks.”

Improving satellite design

“In the early years, satellites like ERS and Eureca experienced many hardware failures once in orbit – the operators were occupied with resolving problems and keeping the spacecraft alive rather than running their mission. By the late 1990s, European industry had learned how to build satellites that lasted longer. From a technical perspective, satellites became more robust and reliable. Spacecraft that were launched around the turn of the century, such as XMM and Mars Express, are all still flying today.

“ESOC profited from satellites becoming robust and reliable, moving from an almost ‘fire brigade’ type of job into building a more professional operational environment. We no longer had to fight with continuous failures; instead, we were able to focus on improvements in the ground systems and operational processes.

“This is where RHEA came in and played a big role. RHEA created one of the first automation systems, which was based on the Manufacturing and Operations Information System [MOIS] tool suite, as well as organizing databases and validation schemes. RHEA responded to our new needs and helped make the operational world a clean and professional one.

“My generation took over from the pioneers of spaceflight and carried European space operations into today’s world, where a solid and reliable infrastructure expertise enables robust and reliable operations for our missions. We are now handing over to the third generation, who will have to bring ESOC into the future.”

Development of EUMETSAT

EUMETSAT is another of the key European space agencies. Formed in 1986, it is a user-governed operational organization set up to serve the needs of its 30 Member States. It took over responsibility for all European Meteosat satellites that were formally created and operated by ESA, with a new purpose-built operations centre opened in December 1995.

Since its creation, EUMETSAT has owned and operated all the Meteosat missions, including the Meteosat Second Generation, the EUMETSAT Polar System and the Jason oceanography satellites. It is also a partner in the EU’s Copernicus EO programme. EUMETSAT operates the Copernicus Sentinel-3, -4, -5 and -6 missions, has embarked on its future MTG and Metop-SG satellites, and will operate the upcoming CO2M mission, designed to monitor carbon dioxide emissions.

Paul Counet, Head of Strategy, Communication and International Relations, identified some of EUMETSAT’s key milestones since it was created.

“Meteosats were the first satellites EUMETSAT worked on, taking over their operations from ESA. Very soon after, EUMETSAT Member States looked at creating the polar system satellites [Metop] to provide global data for weather forecasting. The first Metop satellite was successfully launched in 2006. Metop-B was launched in 2012 and -C in 2018, and both are still flying today. Metop-A was successfully de-orbited last December.

Meteosat Third Generation satellite
Meteosat Third Generation (MTG) satellite © ESA, CC BY-SA 3.0 IGO

“In 1998, we explored creating the next generation of Meteosat satellites, known as MSG [Meteosat Second Generation]. This suite of satellites was to enhance weather observation systems for Europe and Africa. Today these satellites are still flying, providing images of the Earth’s entire surface and a rapid scan service over Europe, as well as data for weather forecasts. We are now preparing for the third pillar of Meteosats [Meteosat Third Generation, MTG] which are due for launch later in 2022.

“EUMETSAT now has 40 years of archived satellite metrological data. Together with the wealth of data provided by the Copernicus programme, we are providing climate scientists worldwide with long-term, consistent data necessary for monitoring climate change, atmospheric monitoring and marine environment services.

“RHEA has been working with EUMETSAT for 30 years, initially supporting ground segment and operational activities, and more recently, security services.”

Phil Evans, Director General for EUMETSAT, added: “The launch of MTG-I1, the first of our next generation of satellites, at the end of 2022 will herald a new era for EUMETSAT and the community that uses our data, including the national weather services in our member states. It will bring about significant change and improvement to what we do and how we do it. Successful collaborations, such as the one with RHEA, will be crucial to support us in meeting the exciting challenges ahead.”

The next 30 years?

Space sector actors will continue to explore the universe and our aspirations will stimulate technological advances and innovation. As more companies become involved in the space sector, it will be interesting to look back in 30 years’ time to a time when a base on Mars seemed a long way off. How many of today’s ambitions will we have managed by 2052?

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Main image: © ESA–P. Carril