It’s thirty-seven days to launch of the Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite, and the mission control team at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC), Darmstadt, Germany, are getting ready to handle any eventuality. Pressure is high, and even though ESOC is celebrating 50 years as Europe’s ‘Gateway to Space’ tomorrow, the launch team are keeping all eyes on Sentinel-5P. 

Today’s simulation, held in the Main Control Room, covers the engineers’ worst nightmare: failure to acquire first signals from the spacecraft in space just after it separates from the rocket. This is vital, as the ground teams must immediately establish contact in order to initiate the procedures that will bring the satellite into its correct position.

To react to the failed contact, the Ground Operations team on console in the control room will conduct a sky search, pointing the ground station antenna, via remote control, at the points in the sky where the satellite could be. This is called ‘targeting in the blind’, transmitting commands to a position in space where the spacecraft is expected to pass.

This is not easy, since the satellite might pass too early or too late over the ground station if it is not on its planned trajectory (due to over- or under-performance of the launching rocket). This delicate phase is conducted with little information, relying on skill, experience and teamwork.

For the team at ESOC on this occasion, the simulation was successful. The ground station antenna ‘saw’ the satellite (but at a different location than expected) and contact was established.

The whole process will be repeated many times until the Flight Director is satisfied that any eventuality can be met.

Sentinel-5P is set for launch on 13 October from the Plesetsk cosmodrome in Russia.