Francois Spoto heads the team that is responsible for taking the Copernicus Sentinel-2 satellites from the drawing board into orbit. In an interview, Francois talks about his role as Project Manager as well as the challenges and rewards he has experienced in getting this innovative ‘colour vision’ mission built and ready for launch.
Francois Spoto, a French national, joined ESA’s European Space Research and Technology Centre, ESTEC, in the Netherlands in 1988. Following his first position as a telecommunication engineer, and then avionics engineer on ERS and on the Envisat platform (known as the Polar Platform), his roles have included Satellite System Manager for the Envisat mission and System Operations Manager for MetOp. Francois took up his current post of Sentinel-2 Project Manager in 2007 and has seen the satellite from conception through to being ready for launch.
Francois graduated as an engineer in 1984 and received a MBA in 1996 in the Netherlands. Prior to joining ESA, Francois worked for three years on telecommunication systems at a small industry close to Paris and at the Radio Astronomy Observatory Paris-Meudon.
ESA: As Project Manager, what are you main responsibilities and how big is your team?
My main responsibilities are to harness human, technical and financial resources to deliver the best possible Sentinel-2 satellites that should, ultimately, fulfil the Copernicus users’ expectations of the mission. Motivating and directing the teams at ESA, at Airbus-DS and within the whole industrial consortium has been, for me, the most interesting aspect. When you think about it, the ‘project’ means people, and a huge proportion of the project budget is used to employ the best professionals in each required field of expertise. At its peak, around 2012, the project team involved up to 25 fulltime equivalent staff and onsite contractors, as well as significant support drawn from ESA’s Directorate of Technical and Quality Management. In the same period, our industrial consortium gathered around 600 professionals, the majority, of course, being engineers.
ESA: What sets the Sentinel-2 mission apart from other satellites observing Earth with optical instruments?
Many optical high-resolution satellites are currently orbiting Earth to capture subtle visual details of our planet, but the drawback that they have is rather modest swath widths, and therefore limited revisit times. In contrast, the Sentinel-2 mission aims at giving global, systematic and long-term measurements, using 13 spectral channels to deliver much more ‘colourful’ images over a very large swath of 290 km, with up to 10m spatial resolution. With these ‘colours’, the Sentinel-2 mission will give users accurate geophysical measurements like critical plant growth indices linked to chlorophyll, water content and leaf area, and deliver a time series of data reflecting changes in how the land is being managed by humans. Even though this provides plenty of key details, the mission also offers unprecedented revisit periods of just five days at the equator when the two satellites are orbiting Earth.
With Sentinel-2, users will also be relieved from the tedious task of aggregating chunks of data received from different satellites flying in different orbits. This major improvement, regarding accuracy and calibration, especially for operational applications covering vegetation-, crop-, forest- and land-management monitoring is one of the unique selling points of Sentinel-2. This new mission allows Europe to push systematic land-monitoring to an unprecedented scale, combining a very wide swath, good spatial resolution and enriched spectral diversity. Since Sentinel-2 is an operational mission expected to deliver upscale services for more than 20 years, system reliability and performance have also been very high priorities from the very start. From all these viewpoints, Sentinel-2 can be considered as a ‘super Landsat’ for Europe.
ESA: Have both Sentinel-2 satellites been built in parallel and, if so, what are the benefits of this approach?
These satellites are similar in design and have been developed in an interwoven manner. Developing this kind of space programme relies on sharp professional competence, requiring a wide range of experts and managers that cannot be cloned to work on two identical satellites simultaneously. Throughout the programme, concurrent satellite development has been useful to address critical equipment failures more efficiently. This has allowed some flight equipment found with anomalies on the first satellite to be replaced with their twin borrowed from the second satellite – limiting the impact of repair to the schedule. Once the first satellite has launched in mid-June 2015, we will concentrate on completing integration and testing the second satellite for a launch in the second half of 2016. From then on, the Sentinel-2 mission will be completely fulfilling its mission requirements.
ESA: What have been the main challenges in ensuring that Sentinel-2 will deliver exactly what Copernicus users need?
The first challenge was to translate users’ expectations into system performance and satellite design requirements, and to negotiate their credible implementation with the satellite and payload instrument Prime Contractor. We tuned each critical requirement to maintain programme affordability from a risk, schedule and cost point of view. Recent technologies and optimal system architectures were selected to secure performance and to ensure the attractiveness of the mission over the next two decades. In that critical period, examples of challenging system engineering questions that the ESA project and Airbus-DS teams had to respond were: What spatial resolution and spectral diversity do we select considering the optical detector and filter technologies available? How do we improve such critical equipment beyond current performance standards without embarking undue risks? How much spectral diversity should we have? Do we calibrate onboard or not? What is the swath-width threshold considering the telescope design, the mirror technologies, thermo-elastic stability constraints, optical performance and the maximum weight driven by the Vega and Rockot launch services?
Once those questions had been answered, the work was distributed across 60 European companies organised in three different levels. A few contracts that deal with mission performance and image quality are directly controlled by the ESA project, so we were able to arbitrate when disagreements arose in the consortium. Of course, at times some contractors encountered difficulties in achieving the required performance at the right cost and within schedule. Solidarity becomes very important at these times. Together, Airbus-DS and our project team helped solve issues many times, even though in two instances we had to select alternative suppliers. At crucial development times, we also discovered that some of the basic building blocks of the satellite, such as printed-circuit boards in the quality we needed, had to be procured outside of Europe. In general, we had planned well so that most critical and complicated issues were solved, although we did underestimate some basic risks that affected the schedule. For example, one of the instrument focal planes was badly contaminated owing to inadequate hardware packaging, which set us back. In space engineering, the evil is often in the details.
ESA: What have been the most rewarding aspects of developing the mission?
Without hesitation,to face a true and purposeful challenge. Copernicus addresses our planet in all its dimensions. Sentinel-2 focuses on land and the effects humans are having on it. There couldn’t be a more fundamental objective! Demanding mission goals pursued in a complex human, technological, engineering and management environment have created a motivating playground for our project team over the last eight years. An ambitious space mission does not tolerate many mistakes so it is important to apply strict procedures, which is fine when things are going well. However, a project can go off track so when problems arose we had to boost our performance, find new competences and implement innovative solutions very quickly. Good communication within and between the teams, combined with a culture of pulling together and coming to compromises across the industrial consortium helped achieve all the performance requirements, and deliver the first qualified Sentinel-2 satellite to the Centre Spatial Guyanais in mid-April 2015.
ESA: How did you keep such a large team together over so many years?
The motivation of the whole team was generally very high, but the project is a long journey and occasionally end goals may vary between the customer and suppliers. We want to deliver the best mission. Industry wants to learn and secure a profit. Continuously reconciling these goals could define ‘space project management’ rather well. In 2007 when the project started, there wasn’t a predecessor Sentinel-2 mission at ESA and our project teamidentified somemissing critical competences. Because we could not recruit because of budgetary constraints, we needed to learn more. Therefore, we established in-kind cooperation with some national agencies to bridge our knowledge gaps and integrate the precious experience gained by CNES and NASA on the relevant Spot and Landsat predecessor programmes. Given the challenging Sentinel-2 data rate and product dissemination requirements, we also cooperated with the German Aerospace Center DLR and with the European Data Relay System project at ESA–ESTEC so that the data relay optical communication payload could be embarked on the satellite to help users receive bigger volumes of data and receive them faster.
ESA: Are there any major lessons learnt or suggestions you have for such large project developments?
Maybe one, which would particularly benefit the Copernicus Sentinels where ESA is accountable to its Member States and to the European Commission. Developing an Earth observation mission is not a ‘one team show’ – several ESA teams have major functions to fulfil and there are concurrent developments to manage when trying to achieve a set of shared mission goals. To foster this notion of common goals, I believe that we should move towards a more established ‘one ESA’ system management culture, organising from the start of the project all the activities and developments that are necessary to give the very best to our customers. This is a translation of the ‘more for less’ trend that will increasingly apply to ESA’s core business. For Sentinel-2, for example, this would cover the satellite development and in-orbit commissioning, flight operations, and mission exploitation.
This is one in a series of interviews with a few of the key people that are involved in the Sentinel-2 mission. Please check back as further interviews will be added to over the coming weeks.