Ground Station Engineering
ESA's Estrack network is a worldwide system of ground stations providing links between spacecraft in orbit and our Operations Control Centre in Darmstadt. The Estrack core comprises 10 stations in seven countries, including three 35 m-diameter deep-space stations in Australia, Spain and Argentina.
We design, build and upgrade ground tracking stations providing critical communications for robotic and human missions. Our stations offer superb accuracy and can pick up faint signals from billions of kilometres away. ESA makes Estrack stations available for cooperative missions with international partners, including NASA, JAXA, Russia, China, India and European national space agencies.
What we do
We are ESA’s ground station systems engineering experts, and we ensure that ESA’s Estrack network can provide cost-effective, accurate and on-time space communication solutions. These include sending telecommands to robotic and human spacecraft, receiving scientific data and telemetry from missions and supporting navigation, time synchronisation and radio science.
The network uses cutting-edge technology – high-precision pointing antennas, multi-frequency radio reception and transmission, cryogenically cooled low-noise amplifiers, high-power uplink amplifiers, highly sensitive receivers for telemetry reception, telecommand generation and radiometric measurements – to provide the most accurate possible tracking for mission billions of kilometres away in deep space.
Our latest system designs focus on optical space-to-ground communication solutions. These aim to provide ten times higher data return compared to similar radio-frequency technology.
In support of the Agency's Space Situational Awareness Preparatory Programme, we are designing and developing a test radar and designing a network of optical telescopes for space debris detection.
We also offer consultancy services within the space communication domain of expertise.
How we do it
Working with other ESA engineering teams, we design new space communication solutions that enable vastly improved scientific capabilities. This means developing the required new technologies for use in next-generation ground station systems. Based on our space communication design expertise, we define specifications for complete antenna systems that can be implemented by industry.
We support regular performance retesting and upgrade of the ten core ESA stations. This results in a sustainment plan for continuous improvement of station capabilities and cost efficiency.
Finally, we support ESA’s involvement in setting European and international technical standards. Among other benefits, these allow, for example, ESA ground stations to track missions flown by other agencies – such as NASA or European national agencies – and vice versa. This is critical for fostering future cooperative missions at destinations such as the Moon or Mars.
In 2006, ESA was required to develop a critical back-up communication channel for the second (and all subsequent) Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV), Johannes Kepler. The system had to enable mission controllers at the ATV Control Centre, Toulouse, France, to send emergency commands to ATV should either of its primary or secondary communication systems to fail.
Experts from the Ground Station Engineering team worked with other engineers from ESA and from the French space agency (CNES) to re-purpose the ATV’s existing proximity radio link (which communicates over short distances to the ISS) for long-distance space-to-Earth communication. This solution was tested at Kourou prior to launch by sending data from ATV mounted on top of its Ariane launcher to the ESA ground station at Kourou.
Our most recent major development project was the design and construction of ESA's third deep-space ground station at Malargüe, Argentina.
The station, DSA 3, enables global deep-space tracking coverage together with DSA 1 and 2 in New Norcia, Australia, and Cebreros, Spain, respectively.
On 7 December 2011, the huge 35 m-diameter dish antenna was hoisted into place, marking a major milestone in construction. The delicate and demanding operation took several hours and had to wait for a calm day with no wind.
On 18 December 2012, the station was formally inaugurated; it entered regular service early in 2013.