A brief overview of mission operations at ESA.
Scroll down to read questions and answers and review our quick facts. Download our executive summary.
Q1: Who are you and what do you do?
We are the men and women working as staff, contractors and support personnel in ESA's Directorate of Human Spaceflight and Operations to operate spacecraft and develop and manage the related ground infrastructure.
We operate satellites from ESOC, ESA's European Space Operations Centre, Darmstadt, Germany. The Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) series of missions and the Columbus science lab on the ISS are operated in cooperation with the French space agency CNES and the German Aerospace Center from control centres located at Toulouse and Oberpfaffenhofen, respectively. We also operate the Proba-series of missions from Redu Centre in Belgium.
We represent dozens of nationalities from across Europe and around the world, and comprise specialists from a wide variety of scientific, engineering and managerial disciplines.
We work as a single team to plan, build and manage ground segments for ESA missions, and then we operate spacecraft from our control rooms using a sophisticated and standardised array of mission control hardware and software. We also provide a range of expert services to customers both inside ESA and at other organisations.
Quick facts & figures
Current as of September 2014
Missions in operation
Missions operated from the European Space Operations Centre
|Solar and planetary||Astronomy and physics||Earth observation|
|Venus Express||XMM-Newton||SWARM (3 satellites)|
|Mars Express||Planck||Cryosat II|
|Cluster II (4 satellites)||Gaia|
Missions operated from Redu Centre
Missions operated from DLR Oberpfaffenhofen and CNES Toulouse
|Columbus lab (ISS)||Columbus Control Centre (Col-CC) - DLR|
|Automated Transfer Vehicle||ATV Control Centre (ATV-CC) - CNES|
Note that ESA operates, participates in or partners with a number of other missions that are not controlled by the Agency's Operations team. For example, ESA's Artemis telecommunications satellite is operated from Fucino, Italy, the joint ESA/NASA SOHO and Hubble missions are operated by NASA, and the SMOS mission is operated by CNES (ESA is responsible for payload operations from ESA/ESAC).
Missions in preparation
We are actively preparing for the following missions: BepiColombo, LISA Pathfinder, ADM-Aeolus, EarthCare and GMES/Sentinel 1, 2 and 3 (initially two satellites in each of the three Sentinel missions).
People in Operations
At ESOC, our primary location, we have about 800, comprising some 250 permanent staff and about 550 contractors. Additionally, approximately 124 work at other ESA establishments, ESTRACK stations, the ATV Control Centre (Toulouse), the Columbus Control Centre (Oberpfaffenhofen) and at partner facilities in several countries.
There are ten stations in the ESTRACK core network, including our three deep space antenna (DSA) stations at New Norcia, Australia; Cebreros, Spain; and, Malargüe, Argentina. We also share capacity with tracking networks operated by other agencies and commercial operators.
Q2: What's a 'ground segment'?
For any space mission, the ground segment comprises the hardware, software, networks and other resources on the ground used to operate the spacecraft and process data received from the instruments on board.
We are specialists in designing, building, operating and maintaining the satellite control portions of ground segments and in conducting operations for all types of missions, from low-Earth orbit and geostationary to interplanetary and astronomical observatory missions.
Q3: What goes on at ESOC?
Although personnel from ESA's Operations team are located at several ESA establishments and partner organisations, the 'home base' for our activities is ESOC, ESA's European Space Operations Centre, in Darmstadt, Germany.
ESOC serves as the Operations Control Centre (OCC) for ESA's robotic missions, and provides facilities for our Main Control Room, Dedicated Control Rooms (smaller control rooms dedicated to specific missions) and the ESTRACK Control Centre – which controls our ESTRACK ground tracking stations worldwide.
ESOC also hosts control facilities for satellite communications, flight dynamics, navigation, networks and other special functions.
In addition to operating missions, we provide world-class services to a variety of internal and external clients for space debris tracking and collision alerts, geodata analysis, software development, navigation and much more.
Q4: What, exactly, is 'LEOP'?
LEOP refers to the 'launch and early orbit phase', the critical first steps in a spacecraft's life starting after the satellite separates from the launcher's upper-most stage. During LEOP, the mission control team works 24 hours/day to activate, monitor and verify various subsystems on board the satellite, ensure that the solar panels have deployed and undertake critical orbit and attitude control manoeuvres. If anything can go wrong, it's most likely to happen during LEOP.
We are one of Europe's most experienced providers of LEOP expertise; we are also called upon to conduct satellite recovery operations, and have successfully recovered a number of satellites that have spun out of control, suffered system failures or whose boosters under performed.
Q5: What are the core activities related to Operations?
- Operate & control spacecraft – including actual flight control, flight dynamics, telecommanding and data receipt via ground stations
- Develop, operate and maintain ESA's ESTRACK ground tracking network, a global network of stations including three 35m deep-space antennas in Spain, Australia and Argentina
- Host ESA's specialised Space Debris Office and Navigation Facility, which provide world-class debris avoidance and geodata services to other agencies, governments, industry and academia
- Manage ESA's Space Situational Awareness (SSA) Programme
- Develop ground control software – including the highly successful EGOS/SCOS-2000 ground operating system, now the European standard
- Plan & build the mission control systems and other portions of the ground segment for future missions
- Coordinate operations activities with partner agencies, including ASI (Italy), CNES (France), DLR (Germany), NASA, JAXA (Japan), Russia, China and others
- Manage frequencies and serve as ESA's representative to international bodies regulating frequencies for space use
- Serve as ESA's representative for international standardisation bodies that coordinate technical standards for space operations
Q6: Do you work with other organisations?
Yes! We have a long history of beneficial cooperation with space agencies and organisations worldwide. We regularly cooperate with the American, German, French, Italian, Russian, Japanese, Chinese and other space agencies – as well as Eumetsat and Eutelsat – to plan, manage and control multiple missions, current and past. We also share tracking station facilities and telecommunication links.
This positive and cost-effective technical and operational cooperation will continue in the future.
We work closely with European industry to advance the state of European technology in the areas of spacecraft operation, ground system engineering and communications. This is done by placing contracts for studies, research and development, and by transferring the knowledge and experience we've gained to industry. We have a substantial base of strategic assets and a depth of expertise that has benefited many partners.
We also support cesah (Centre for Satellite Navigation in Hessen GmbH), a unique incubator located in Darmstadt and host to ESA's Business Incubation Centre Darmstadt. cesah fosters commercial applications based on navigation data to be supplied by the Galileo project, Europe's global satellite navigation system due to enter service later this decade.