My life as a 'SOM': Elsa Montagnon and her projects

Elsa, you were a Spacecraft Operations Manager (SOM), by the young age of 30. How did your career begin and what did you study?

I studied general engineering with a specialisation in aeronautics/aerospace. This has given me a good background in general engineering disciplines such as classical mechanics, quantum mechanics, thermo-dynamics, fluid dynamics and electronics. In my specialisation I learned about space mission and spacecraft design.

What did you have to learn on the job?

Most of what I need for spacecraft operations, I learned on the job. The theory includes answering questions such as what is a spacecraft database, what are the critical elements of the spacecraft and ground systems when it comes to flight operations, how to write procedures and timelines and how to approach an anomaly. But the most important thing is to acquire detailed, practical knowledge about the mission and the spacecraft, which is the basis for all our daily activities.

Is any particular software knowledge required?

The Flight Control Team is a user of software, but does not develop software itself. We have to be able to state what we want without imposing a solution for it. In this context, understanding of issues related to software development is an asset, but practical software skills are not mandatory. There are some areas where hands-on software engineering knowledge is an asset, for instance when dealing with on-board software maintenance, or to develop support tools or scripts to improve every day life.

What advice can you give to students and young graduates applying to ESA?

In my view, the best way for young graduates to apply to ESA is to apply to the Young Graduate Trainee program, giving them an opportunity to spend one year in one of our teams. In the field of operations, this is a fantastic way to learn on the job. In fact, many Flight Control Team colleagues (including myself) came to ESA this way. In general, I would recommend anybody interested in spacecraft operations to search for opportunities to gather hands-on experience, possibly on flying missions.

Elsa's professional development with ESA

From 1999 to end 2006, I was a Spacecraft Operations Engineer as part of the Rosetta Flight Control Team. Since the beginning of 2007 I've been the BepiColombo Spacecraft Operations Manager.

The time it takes between the first design to the launch of a satellite varies from mission to mission, but it is common for more than a decade to pass between the time a mission is first proposed and its launch. A mission is typically approved for implementation four to five years prior to its launch. Interplanetary missions tend to be associated with long cruise phases. On Rosetta, the prime scientific mission will be about 10 years after launch, in 2014. On BepiColombo, the prime scientific mission will start 6.5 years after launch.

Elsa's daily routine...if there is such a thing!

My daily routine involves a lot of communication, within the Flight Control Team, with ESA colleagues, with Industry and with the scientific community. Until 2-3 years before launch, most of the Flight Control Team work involves reading and writing documents and contributing to discussions on technical issues. Ground systems then start being developed and delivered. This begins the test phase, first focusing on acceptance testing of ground systems, and then moving into interface testing with the spacecraft. This is followed by end-to-end validation with all operational partners and culminates in the launch campaign. Most tests consist of hands-on activities prepared and executed by the Flight Control Team.

It is important to know that the flight control team activities do not normally involve direct contact with hardware, in terms of seeing or manipulating it. Our interfaces with the spacecraft are based on the exchange of data structures: telecommands (instructions to the spacecraft) and telemetry (data from the spacecraft). The interactions with industry focus on gathering information and discussing issues related to the definition of these data interfaces. The functional behaviour of the space segment as far as it affect operations is another important factor.. The interfaces are validated in dedicated tests, where we connect the operational ground systems to the spacecraft, and verify all data structures and operational procedures.

In-flight, a large part of the work consist of planning and validating spacecraft operations, processing the data returned by the spacecraft, reacting to non-nominal information in the telemetry and performing analysis of long-term trends.

Pre-launch, there are many interactions with Industry and the ESA team leading the project. Post launch, most of the interactions with other sites are with the instrument teams and the ESA team coordinating science operations.

The Milestones of a typical Launch Campaign

'Launch campaign' is the term used for the time frame starting three to four months prior to launch until a few days after launch, when the spacecraft enters the commissioning phase. This is a very intense period for the entire mission team, but for us flight operators, this period is dominated by the last interface test with the spacecraft, used to verify the closure of flight-critical anomalies, and the simulations campaign.

The sims campaign occupies the last three to four months before launch, with up to two simulations per week. Its objective is to train the mission control team, composed of the flight control team, the ground segment support teams, and the spacecraft expert team. The campaign starts with familiarisation with nominal scenarios, and then trains the team on contingencies by injecting failures at various levels of the ground and space segments. In this campaign, a software simulator replaces the spacecraft and the ground stations network, all other ground equipments are the operational ones.

For our team, the launch count-down typically starts 8 hours prior to launch. From that moment onwards, the mission control team is on-console and follows a joint timeline with the launch site. The mission control team will remain in operations in shifts covering 24 hours a day until a few days after launch, when the spacecraft starts its commissioning phase. At this point operations are moved to a single daily shift and to a mission dedicated control room. Space segment experts are then only required on site for specific operations. This marks the end of the so-called launch and early orbit phase (LEOP).

Elsa’s current project: BepiColombo

There are several types of meetings which are necessary during the development phase of a new project:

  • progress meetings
  • science working group meetings
  • review collocations
  • operations interface meetings

In the development phase we hold progress meetings with all contractors. A mission like BepiColombo involves more than 70 contractors in various areas. Meetings typically take place every 4 to 8 weeks. As members of the Flight Control Team however, we mainly attend System and Avionics discussions on the space segment side. These meetings take place at the site of the company in charge. On the ground segment side, we attend all progress meetings with the companies developing the ground systems for the mission. These meetings are normally held in ESOC.

Twice per year, the project organises meetings to discuss mission scientific issues with the teams in charge of developing the scientific instruments to be embarked on the spacecraft. The Flight Control Team attends these meetings.

At all levels, the developments are subject to regular reviews, from requirements specification to readiness for launch. We contribute to these reviews at system/mission level, for subsystems that are key to spacecraft operations (e.g. on-board computer, mass memory, transponder, on-board software), for the instruments, and for the ground systems. The comments raised by the reviewers are normally discussed in one face to face meeting, normally held on-site at the company under review.

On BepiColombo, we have regular operations interface meetings with the Japanese Agency and with the ESA colleagues in charge of science operations. When necessary, we also set up operations interface meetings with the instrument teams.

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