Colour vision for Copernicus – European Space Agency’s Sentinel-2B Launch Event from Darmstadt, Germany

35 hours. No sleep, for 35 hours. From London to Darmstadt and back again.

Invited to join the European Space Agency (ESA) for the launch of the second Sentinel-2 satellite (Sentinel-2B) at ESA’s mission control/operation centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany, a Sentinel launch ‘SocialSpace’ event was being held in conjunction with the launch of Sentinel-2B on a Vega rocket from Europe’s Spaceport in Kourou, French Guiana. Liftoff was scheduled for 02:49 CET (01:49 GMT), during the early hours of Tuesday the 7th March, where flight teams at ESOC would assume control of the satellite a little over an hour later.

The Sentinels (plural; due to the fact that the mission is based on a constellation of two identical satellites launched separately, orbiting 180° apart, covering all Earth’s land surfaces, large islands, inland and coastal waters every five days) are a new fleet of ESA satellites, delivering a wealth of global data and imagery helping us understand and manage our environment, tackle the effects of climate change, and safeguard everyday lives. Named “Sentinel-2B” (following on from the Sentinel-1 radar satellite, and Sentinel-2A already in orbit) the instrument would give colour vision to Europe’s Copernicus programme. Consisting of a mulispectral imager covering 13 spectral bands with a swath of 290km and spatial resolutions of 10m (4 visible and near-infrared bands), 20m (6 red-edge/shortwave-infrared bands) and 60m (3 atmospheric correction bands), Sentinel-2B could be used to map changes in land cover and monitor the world’s forests and effects of deforestation, whilst also providing information on pollution in lakes and coastal waters. Images of floods, volcanic eruptions and landslides that can contribute to disaster mapping and ultimately help humanitarian relief efforts.

The ‘#Setinel2Go’ event was hosted in the ESOC press centre commencing on our arrival at 14:00CET on the 6th of March through to approximately 00:00CET when we would move to the ESOC Conference Centre for the launch, and there we would remain throughout the night and until the end of the event at roughly 07:00CET, the following morning on Tuesday 7th of March. As another chapter of the ESA’s social network/outreach initiative, the event brought together 100 social media users with a common interest in space, spaceflight and space exploration, cosmology, and astronomy from countries as far afield as Australia, Brazil, Venezuela, Bangladesh, Israel, Canada and Morocco.

Here’s how the event went:


Arrival. Security clearance approved. Camera bag inspected. Gate open. I was in.

Instructed to “cross the road and go through the green doors” I entered the ESOC Press Centre to be given a complimentary rucksack full of Copernicus  information booklets, a pen, stickers and badges, as well as a polo-shirt, all emblazoned with the Sentinel2Go logo, and took my place within the seating arena. Before long, and with introductions exchanged between those seated around me, Daniel Scuka, our main point of contact throughout application and assessment, subsequent approval, and general questions and queries regarding the event, informs us that we are about the depart on our behind-the-scenes tour of ESOC. Daniel has been the Web editor at ESOC, ESA’s Space Operations Centre, in Darmstadt, Germany, since 2004. As part of the ESA Web portal team, he reports for ESA’s Human Spaceflight and Operations team and covers activities at ESOC and other ESA establishments as a senior spacecraft operations editor. Daniel’s sole instruction;

“DO NOT be shy.

And with that, we were off…


Tour Stage: The Planetary Missions Control Room

Controlling the operating activities of planetary and solar missions from within this room, such as Mars Express and the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter, astronomy & fundamental physics missions, such as the Gaia spacecraft and XMM Newton, and Earth observation missions such as CryoSat2 and the Swarm spacecraft, commands to the spacecrafts are sent from here, including Rosetta in the past. We are informed that interplanetary missions are harder to manage because of a delay in relay time, and a fixed antennae usually means that science acquisition and transmissions to Earth are decoupled and happen independently. So, for example; How far away is Mars? The answer to that question changes as both Earth and Mars are following elliptical orbits around the Sun, and evidently the planets can be close together, and equally other times they can be at opposite sides of the Sun. Although their distance from one another varies, those points depend on where the planets are on their particular orbits. So, the Earth/Mars distance is changing from minute to minute. Also, planets don’t follow circular orbits around the Sun, they’re actually travelling in ellipses. Sometimes they’re at the closest point to the Sun (called perihelion), and other times they’re at the furthest point from the Sun (known as aphelion). When Earth and Mars reach their closest point, this is known as opposition, and at this point, Mars and Earth will be only 54.6 million kilometres from each other. At the opposite end of the scale, Mars and Earth can be 401 million km apart (249 million miles) when they are in opposition and both are at aphelion. The average distance between the two is 225 million km. We are informed that communicating with the Mars Trace Gas Orbiter currently (at the time of writing with Mars at its closest point of 55/60 million km) can take anywhere between 3/4 minutes to send, and 3/4 minutes to receive a reply. Soon it will be between 17/18 minutes, and when the distance between the Earth and Mars is at its furthest, 24 minutes each way.

Tour Stage: The Ground Segment Reference Room

ESOC hosts the control centre for the Agency’s space artefact preparation and testing, and the European Tracking array station network (ESTRACK). The core network comprises of 9 stations in seven countries: Kourou (French Guiana), Maspalomas, Villafranca and Cebreros (Spain), Redu (Belgium), Santa Maria (Portugal), Kiruna (Sweden), Malargüe (Argentina) and New Norcia (Australia), where operators are on duty at ESOC 24 hours/day all year round to conduct tracking passes, upload commands and download telemetry and data. The ground tracking stations and communication networks have to be configured and tested for the specific needs of the mission, and any necessary additional capability or functionality must be developed, tested and integrated, all from within this room in Darmstadt. Also, the operators in here ensure that the computer facilities and local area networks are established at ESOC for the mission and that these are integrated with all other systems. Finally, all systems together will be validated in a realistic, end-to-end (i.e. spacecraft-to-ground) testing campaign.

Tour Stage: Space Debris Office

Opposite the Ground Segment Reference Room is the door to a room with ‘Space Debris Office’ embossed on the glass. Inside is a room that it quickly becomes clear could fit no-more than five, maybe six people and their respective work stations. There are 4 medium-sized LCD screens attached to the wall, and a four tiered glass display cabinet adorns one of the corners, and is filled with damaged spacecraft artefacts with what looks bullet holes in them. Yet, their seemingly modest room cannot be said to be the same for the magnitude of their work that goes on within. Those ‘bullet holes’ are the effects of 1mm space debris collisions. In almost 60 years of space activities, more than 4900 launches have placed some 6600 satellites into orbit, of which about 3600 remain in space. Less than a third – about 1100 – are still operational. This large amount of ‘dead’ space hardware has a total mass of more than 6300 tonnes. More than 17000 orbital objects are being tracked and catalogued by the US Space Surveillance Network, but, this only covers objects larger than about 5-10cm in low-Earth orbit (LEO), up to 2000km above the Earth, and objects of 0.3-1m at geostationary altitudes, about 36000km. These debris objects are a clear and present threat to new and existing space missions, given that a typical collision speed of 10km/s in LEO with a 10cm object would entail a catastrophic fragmentation of a typical satellite, a 1cm object will most likely disable a spacecraft and penetrate the International Space Station shields, and a 1mm object could destroy subsystems. Within this very room, the ESA are working to monitor and control the risks of operating in an environment that contains debris by initiating the Data Exchange Agreement between themselves and the US by predicting collision avoidance, reentry predictions, controlled reentries, and develop tools and models using a number of software programs to allow mission planners to estimate the risks to their respective missions. And yet, it becomes apparent that non-compliance of the rule ‘that all spacecraft must re-enter after a maximum 25year lifespan leaving zero debris’ is an issue. There are estimated to be 29,000 man-made objects larger than 10cm, and 700,000 1cm objects in orbit from both dead and operational spacecrafts. These more often than not have originated from launches and collisions, including 200 spacecraft breakups. Space debris is a problem.

Red ring telecom/radio/active satellites – white is debris/fragments – yellow up-stages from launches.

700,000 1cm objects

Tour Stage: European Space Operations Centre. Mission Control & The Briefing Room

The Briefing Room; Where the flight operations team as well as representatives from flight dynamics, ground stations and other supporting teams gather periodically for reviews and debriefings during simulations and during actual live operations has three solid walls, and one glass one, floor to ceiling; looking into Mission Control. It is quiet, and deserted, the computers and screens are off (including the third screen from the left which concentrated the World’s attention when the signal from Rosetta was lost in 2016 confirming the moment of its deliberate crash landing into Comet 67P). It is the quiet before the storm. In the corner of the briefing room is the ESOC ‘White Board’ – a simple yet critical tool in mission operations, and we’re told is the most important object in the building. Each of the teams provide their input into the scribblings on the White Board. How the current phase of the mission is going, and the flight director marks a careful record of the discussion on the board throughout. He or she also adds in proposals and comments on the best way forward or on how to deal with any problems or issues that have come up that aren’t catered for by standard procedures. This often includes real-time information coming from the project team (from ESTEC), from Eumetsat (the satellite’s owner/operator), the ground stations or the flight operations team, or even from real-time brainstorming/inspiration. When time is short the information, plans, and conclusions written on the board are the latest record of ‘the way ahead’. Therefore, to ensure that everyone is in agreement with the discussion, you’ll note the top row of the board are the signatures of each of the team leads, indicating their concurrence with the content – a simple yet effective way to ensure that nothing is forgotten and that all the expert team leads are in agreement.

Tour Stage: Earth Observational Control Room

Immediately upon entering the Earth Observation Control Room, the ‘engineer-on-call’ took a phonecall and left the room as he was needed. It’s at this point we truly realised that this is a living, breathing Space Operational Centre. The Earth Observation Control Room is where the data is processed and its inhabitants are responsible for managing the operation and exploitation of the ESA’s Earth Observation satellites. In cooperation with other space agencies, they also manage some non-ESA satellites. In this room, instrument performance and product quality are permanently checked and new products developed in response to evolving user demand.

Tour Stage: The Astronomy Missions Control Room

Every ESA spacecraft flying, everything, has had controls instructed upon them from within this room. We’re given an insight into the GAIA mission and how it is run by its controllers and engineers by the Spacecraft Operations Manager (SOM) David Milligan, from the UK, who gives us our guided tour of the workings of the room; The Gaia mission is conducting a survey of one thousand million stars in our Galaxy, monitoring each target star about 70 times over a five-year period and precisely charting their positions, distances, movements and changes in brightness. The spacecraft carries a single integrated instrument that comprises of three major functions: astrometry, photometry and spectrometry. Photographing everything in our Galaxy, once every two Months. It is an ambitious mission to chart a three-dimensional map of our Galaxy, and in the process will reveal the composition, formation and evolution of it. The main goal of the Gaia mission is to make the largest, most precise three-dimensional map of our Galaxy by surveying an unprecedented one per cent of the galaxy’s population of 100 billion stars. If that doesn’t sound ambitious, the ESA had not only to design and build the spacecraft itself, they also had to develop new computer software that will ensure the data can be processed efficiently once it is back on Earth, from this very room.

And with that, upon hearing how the most audacious observational space mission is coming to fruition and succeeding amidst the furthest sky, our tour of ESOC is over, and we return to the Press Centre via a detour to see a 1:1 scale model of Sentinel-2B recently erected outside of the building. To my right, I see the person I have been casually talking to throughout the tour offer a wave to the model, her name is Bianca Hörsch. Bianca is the Sentinel-2 Mission Manager, and is responsible for the Sentinel-2 satellites once they enter their exploitation phase, and holds end-to-end mission responsibility ensuring that the mission fulfils its objectives and satisfies the user communities. She affectionately introduces me to “her baby.”


Retaking our seats, word quickly spreads that a ubiquitous door within the Press Centre has opened and within it we find a generous offering of trays filled with an array of teas, coffees, pastries, beers and wines, before it’s time for our first meet & greet, with ESA Head of Mission Operations and Earth observation mission control; Dr. Paolo Ferri, who takes the stage. Since 2013, Paolo Ferri has been the head of the ESA’s Mission Operations Department, and is in-charge of mission operations preparation and execution for all ESA unmanned missions (currently 10 missions – 15 satellites – in flight and other 19 in preparation, mainly interplanetary, astronomy and Earth observation missions). The Department is also responsible for the operation of ESOC’s ground facilities, including the worldwide ground stations network. His quote of the Q&A;

“Problems always occur on the weekends, and they prefer to happen at night.”


Dinner at Braustüb’l restaurant. Meat, and more meat. Well recommended.


We return to the Press Centre for our pre-launch briefing with Thomas Ormston, ESA Spacecraft Operations Engineer, our second meet & greet guest speaker. From the commencement, Thomas is frank about the personalities of ESOC, and uses personal photographs from the Sentinel 1 launch throughout his 40minute powerpoint presentation to aid his comments such as;

“This is how we look when we’re solving problems”, and “this is how we look when everything goes well and we can have our 3am steak”, and “We all hope to have a very boring launch, but, we’re ready”.

Thomas then moves on to planning for satellite development, ESOC traditions and procedures;

Once the rocket takes off, nothing”s happened yet; they’ve just lit a firework. we don’t cheer. It’s all about deployment, Then, and only then, we cheer.”

Then things get serious… Simulation. To quote;

“Simulation, simulation, simulation. Test. Learn. Pull together. The most important thing in at ESOC is the Briefing Room White Board, don’t panic, refer to the board, don’t make any rash decisions, don’t act quickly, just record everything, go to the White Board, write it down, decide and continue. If we go quiet, we haven’t given up, we’re working very, very hard on solving the problem”

We them move swiftly onto engineering;

“The key to rocketry is controlling the explosion. The point of a rocket is to go fast. Getting to space is easy, you go up, but if you’re not going fast you’ll come right back down again.”

Ending on a high, Thomas talks of communication. Firstly, communication with the satellite, then communication between others within the Operation Centre;

“We will have problems tonight, I don’t know of any launch that has been completely problem free, they’re never usually very big, and we do solve them, but space is difficult, it is a challenging environment, but it is part of the satisfaction of working in that room in solving those problems. So I’m sure you’ll join me in wishing Sentinel-2B all the best for tonight.” 

And with that, Thomas leaves the stage to rapturous applause, that was very well deserved.


Screening: “Home” by Yann Arthus-Bertrand

followed by…

Screening: Fabrica video & short talk with producers/composer and live electronic music performance – “The Sounds of ESA in space”


It is 1 hour, 19 minutes until the scheduled launch of Sentinel-2B from French Guiana at 02:49CET, and we begin to make our way up to the first floor to the ESOC conference centre and join the Worlds press already assembled inside. There are four ‘presentation stages’ within each of the corners of the room and are named; Sea, Land, Urban, and Tech & Business. In the middle of the room, and all facing a centre stage are rows of chairs that do not total an amount equal to the amount of people in attendance. This is because the event organisers would rather we ‘mingle’ and explore the room, than remain seated. Their plan has worked. The enthusiasm in the atmosphere is palpable. To the back of the room an artist, Christoph Kellner, is in the process of creating a graphic recording of the mission objectives surrounding Sentinel-2B, appropriately on a ‘white board’ identical to the one used in the Operation Centre Briefing Room. Television presenters Maximiliane Koschyk and Helena Kaschel take to the stage, introduce themselves, and welcome the worldwide audience to the event as the camera’s flicker into life. We’re live.


GO/NO GO update from Flight Operations Director Pier Paolo Emanuelli. All Sentinel-2B Flight controls are Go. Flight status is Green.


We are welcomed by Rolf Densing, ESA Director of Operations, and Philippe Goudy, ESA Head of Earth Observation Projects, who has taken to the main stage. The conviction in his belief that the European Space Agency (ESA) is Europe’s gateway to space is contagious, and its mission to shape the development of Europe’s space capability and ensure that investment in space continues to deliver benefits to the citizens of Europe and the world continues tonight with the launch of Sentinel-2B receives a standing ovation. He leaves the stage to tumultuous applause, and rightfully so.


GO/NO GO roll call in the Main Control Room from Flight Operations Director Pier Paolo Emanuelli. All Sentinel-2B Flight controls are Go. Flight status is Green.


Sentinel-2 mission overview presentation
Bianca Hörsch, ESA Sentinel-2 Mission Manager takes to the main stage and introduces us all to the Copernicus Programme and its mission objectives to perform terrestrial observations in support of services such as forest monitoring, land cover changes detection, and natural disaster management.


Presentations on Land and Food (Land stage)
Speakers: Marcus Sindram, GAF, Sophie Bontemps UCL, Christoph J Kellner, visual artist, Selma Cherchali, CNES, Anne Schucknecht, JRC, Mátyás M. Rada, ETC/ULS, Riazuddin Kawsar, Spacenus, Carmen Tawalika, Mundialis.


Update from the Main Control Room
Deputy Flight Operations Director Juan Piñeiro informs us that all systems are nominal. No issues are being worked. The flight status remains Green.


Thomas Reiter discussing this ‘Spaceship Earth’
Astronaut Thomas Reiter is introduced to us on the main stage to rapturous applause and a standing ovation. Thomas Reiter is a retired European astronaut and is currently working as ESA Interagency Coordinator and Advisor to the Director General at the European Space Agency. He served as an onboard engineer for the Euromir 95/Soyuz TM-22 mission to the Mir space station, and during his 179 days aboard Mir, he carried out two EVAs and became the first German astronaut to perform a spacewalk. He trained for a six-month mission to the International Space Station and was launched on the Discovery STS-121 mission to join Expedition 13. The launch date was set for 1 July 2006, but was moved to 2 July, and finally launched on 4 July 2006 due to weather delays. Discovery departed 15 July, leaving Reiter behind with Expedition 13. He later became part of Expedition 14 before returning to Earth aboard Discovery during the STS-116 mission. Thomas Reiter has logged just over 350 days in space, the most by any non-American or non-Russian.


Presentations on Space Tech & Business (Tech & Business stage)
Speakers: Tanja Nemetzade, Airbus DS, José Morales, ESA, Miguel Such-Taboada, ESA, Ferran Gascon, ESA, Olivier Colin, ESA


About the Vega launcher
Speaker: Davide Nicolini, ESA, talks to us about the Vega rocket that will launch Sentinel-2B. Vega, named after the brightest star in the constellation Lyra, is a single-body launcher (no exterior boosters) with three solid rocket stages: the P80 first stage, the Zefiro 23 second stage, and the Zefiro 9 third stage. The final upper stage module is a liquid rocket called the AVUM (Attitude Vernier Upper Module) that will place Sentinel-2B into orbit.


Final countdown –  Live coverage from Kourou launch site, French Guiana


LIFT OFF Vega ascent phase – There is a universal caveat in place for when you witness the launch of a rocket. You cheer, you wave your arms, you finally exhale after holding your breath during the ten second countdown until launch. However, tonight the room is silent. We are in awe watching the screens as the launch is beamed in live from French Guiana, and try desperately to hold our applause for a further two hours when the solar panels are confirmed to have successfully deployed and the spacecraft is up and running. Almost 30 seconds pass until the first clap is heard, before an applause suddenly erupts, becoming thunderous as everyone in the room joins in. 


Presentations on City and Society (Urban Stage)
Speakers: Juliane Huth, DLR/DFD, Clémence Kenner, SIRS, Sara Aparício, ESA


European Commission
Speaker: András Roboz, EU Commission talks about the free and open data policy is one of the key achievements of Copernicus, and how it is also the key to its success.


Presentations on Space Tech & Business (Tech corner)
Sascha Heising, FabSpace 2.0
Hinnerk Gildhoff, SAP
Grega Milcinski, Sinergise


Update from the Main Control Room
Deputy Flight Operations Director Juan Piñeiro. Launch successful. All systems nominal.


Emergency and Science
Emanuele Barreca, EU Commission describes the strength from existing user and market initiatives across the Copernicus participating Countries.


Presentations on Sea and Coast (Sea corner)
Speakers: Craig Donlon, ESA, Anne O’Carroll, Eumetsat, Lionel Zawadzki, CLS, Vittorio Brando, CNR, Sara Aparício, ESA, Bianca Hörsch, ESA


Live coverage from the Kourou launch site, French Guiana. No applause. Flight controllers are watching their respective monitors in quiet contemplation as they await the signal that the AVUM has separated from Sentinel-2B.


Separation confirmed! Sentinel-2B is in free flight.


Acquisition of signals! The solar panel is confirmed to have successfully deployed. Sentinel-2B phones home. The night’s mission ojectives has been accomplished!


Update from the Main Control Room
Flight Operations Director Pier Paolo Emanuelli can just be heard as the main control room is filled with a cacophony of loud hoots, applause and cheers.


Success speeches
Speakers: Luc Fabreguettes, Arianespace Vega Project Manager, Jan Woerner, ESA Director General, András Roboz, EU Commission, Davide Niccolini, ESA, Bianca Hörsch, ESA, Rolf Densing, ESA, Philippe Goudy, ESA


It’s the end of the live broadcast, but not before a cake to commemorate the event is unveiled in the shape of the Earth. The cake is ceremonially cut after a countdown from ten, and slices are passed around the room. Who knew, 4am is cake o’clock?

Just in time, Christoph Kellner has finished his graphic recording.

0500 – 7:00

The main event and press room activities come to an end.

I feel reluctant to leave. I wish to stay, encapsulated by the events of the last 27 hours, and absorb all that I can from inside the inner sanctum of an institution that has been making history since 1975. The ESA is an international organisation with 22 Member States. By coordinating the financial and intellectual resources of its members, it undertakes programmes and activities far beyond the scope of any single European country. The job of the ESA is to draw up the European space programme and carry it through. And they certainly do. The ESA’s programmes are designed to find out more about Earth, its immediate space environment, our Solar System and the Universe, as well as to develop satellite-based technologies and services, and to promote European industries. The Sentinel constellation/Copernicus programme can rightfully mark its name amongst the annuls of successful space flight programmes that includes human spaceflight (mainly through participation in the International Space Station programme); the launch and operation of unmanned exploration missions to other planets, comets, and the Moon; Earth observation, science and telecommunication; and designing launch vehicles. But I have a flight to catch.

Until the next time ESA, let me take this opportunity to thank you, an the ESA Social Media “Social4Space and #sentinel2go” team for their dedication and hard work in organising such an incredible event, and all of the ESOC scientists and engineers; first and foremost for not only imparting their knowledge upon us, and answering our numerous questions with patience and enthusiasm, but also for infecting us all with their pride and dedication for their work.

What a 35 hours that was. 35 hours no sleep. 35 remarkable hours.

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