EO Detective ID D-0901-TN-SPACE

What do you work on?

I work on the Sentinel 2 mission that is part of the big Copernicus programme run by the European Space Agency (ESA) and the European Commission (EC). This pair of spacecraft observe the Earth from orbit and make optical measurements; i.e. they take pictures of the Earth – with different resolutions – intended for land and coastal monitoring. The camera on board the spacecraft can ‘see’ different wavelengths,  so they can differentiate between different substances on the surface of the Earth (water, vegetation, sand, etc.) and ‘illustrate’ the status of vegetation by measuring the chlorophyll content. These measurements are put together in pictures. Since, between them, the two satellites revisit every spot on Earth every five days, the evolution of a situation can be followed nearly seamlessly.

So Earth observation by Sentinel-2 helps us:

  • to understand the effects ofclimate change, e.g. long-term effects on vegetation and glacier melting
  • to support monitoring of disasters  like flooding or fires
  • to improve agricultural efforts: checking how effective fertilizers are by monitoring the progress of vegetation (this is particularly important in poor countries, for example on the African continent, which suffer from climate change effects such as extreme aridity)
  • to support urban planning

Building a satellite is big-team work. Everyone is responsible for one part of the spacecraft and together we compose the overall system. I am responsible for the laser communication terminal (LCT) on board both Sentinel 2s. The LCT transmits data via a powerful laser beam to a so-called relay satellite, which then transmits the data to the ground. Therefore, data is transmitted to Earth nearly instantly after acquisition and users on ground don’t need to wait for the spacecraft to pass over a ground station. This nearly real-time data transmission is especically important for disaster monitoring – the sooner you get the information, the better. And, it’s just cool to get an instantaneous picture – as if you were taking a picture with your smartphone (on a larger scale, though 😉 )

We don’t make the LCT but I am the interface between the group who design and manufacture it and us. I am responsible for closely following the engineering and testing of the LCT , supporting our colleagues if there are problems, ensuring that the LCT arrives in time to be integrated in the spacecraft, planning and executing tests once it is in place, etc. … All this is to ensure that the LCT fits well into the spacecraft and is ready and prepared for its job in space. In short, my job involves a lot of organisation (i.e. project management) and technical effort (i.e. engineering).

My colleagues and I also support the operations activities of our spacecraft (each of  us is responsible for tour ‘own’ unit). This means that we check the health status of our ‘baby’ in orbit on the basis of telemetry we get from the spacecraft. Yes, the satellite communicates with us on the ground by sending not only pictures but also information about how it’s feeling up in space: we get the status of certain parameters, like the temperature and power consumption of specific components. This monitoring activity is very important for ensuring that the satellite stays healthy up in space and can provide further pictures as intended. If it does become ‘ill’ (perhaps it’s too hot or cold, or using energy too quickly), we can send it a recipe it can use to cure itself – remote instructions to do something such as reboot units or change its orientation in space.

All this operations work is done over the complete lifetime of the satellite, beginning when it separates from the launcher and continuing until the end of its life – usually when the satellite has no more fuel on board to activate its thrusters so it can stay in its intended orbit. Our team does all this in close cooperation with ESA engineers from the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) –who communicate with the spacecraft via huge antenna across the world – and their colleagues from the European Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC).

ESA

How did you come to be an EO Detective?

Since I was a child, I have been fascinated by the endlessness of the universe, the countless numbers of stars, everything which lies hidden in the dark and just waits to be discovered by us. I always wanted to be part of that, to contribute to discoveries, to this big adventure. More philosophically, I believe that the answers to questions like “Where do we come from?” “What makes us what we are?” – questions about our existence and origin – lie out there in the dark. That’s why I became an aerospace engineer. Luckily, my passion for the logic of maths supported this – in maths it’s only right or wrong: there’s nothing in between as there is in other school subjects like politics or history. After school, I was looking for a subject that would combine my passions. I ended up in mechanical engineering at the Technical University of Munich in Germany and knew from the start that I would specialise in space engineering so I could build satellites to make discoveries in the solar system. I was fortunate to also study in Toulouse at Supaéro (I’ve always been a francophile, loving French (because of its nice sound) and France (because of its food and it’s way of living – which is far more relaxed than in Germany 😉 ) and at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge, USA (fulfilling a dream to get to know the American space business, getting close to NASA). Finally, I ended up at Airbus Defence and Space in Germany.

How does what you do relate to other steps in the EO chain?

We build the satellites that are the technical means of, the prerequisites for, making measurements in orbit, and provide data to users on the ground. The satellites take the pictures with their ‘camera’, which is a Multi-Spectral Imager (MSI).

What’s the best thing about your job?

There are so many aspects … 🙂 An assortment of the most important ones:

  • Working in an international team: my colleagues are from all over Europe and from Asia – space is a highly international business
  • Interfacing with so many other organisations: ESA and various subcontractors all have their own way of working and their own interests – it’s very challenging to get all people around the table but, in the end, we are all working for the same goal which is getting the satellite in orbit to do its job
  • Having fun: I really love my team! We laugh and joke every day, but still respect each other and work together very professionally
  • Having experienced colleagues around me from who I learn  another little detail about satellite engineering each day
  • Having responsibility for a tiny part of spacecraft that is actually in orbit – it’s as if I’m flying myself 😉
  • Getting a satellite that, ultimately, serves all sorts of people into orbit
  • Making the technical equipment that ultimately delivers stunning, beautiful pictures of our planet and makes people interested in space and its various applications
  • Possibly providing another piece of information to help solve the mystery of our existence

Tell us about your favourite image of the Earth from space

NASA

I really love every picture that Sentinel-2 takes. I’m never bored with the details, colours and shapes on the surface of Earth. The images just show me the beauty of our planet in a very striking way. However, this picture has been my wallpaper since my early days in university. It was taken from the ISS and has always inspired me to strive for my dreams, to go for the stars and to never give up, no matter how hard the way to it may be.

What do you do in your spare time?

I love music and am always producing it myself (piano, choir), listening to it (all day long on the radio, in concerts or on the web), or dancing to it. I also love reading novels, usually gooey girly books, John Grisham, or stories that leave thoughtful. I am not fond of sport, but I enjoy cooking and – of course – eating. Travel is also a big passion of mine, discovering foreign countries and their people, diving in into their way of life for just a few days.

And finally …

Space is about dreams, crossing frontiers, being curious. So please allow me to address the following words to you, independently from the topic of space or EO, hoping that it will encourage you to go further.

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