ESTEC Open Day 2017 – Bringing Space to Earth

Stormtroopers! The Dutch Garrison of the 501st Legion, a Star Wars fan costume organisation, were patrolling and posing for photographs as I crossed the threshold into the European Space Agency’s Research and Technology Centre, which rather invitingly glowed in the morning light cast by the rising Sun, and with it, the annual Open day had its dawn.

From London to Brussels, up to Amsterdam, down to Leiden, across to Noordwijk and back again, the weekend’s highlight was a visit to the European Space Agency’s Research and Technology Centre – or ESTEC – for its Open Day. A place where Europe’s space missions are born, and their development overseen. The challenges are immense. But, the payoffs are greater. I digress, here’s how the event went, and where better place to start…

The Main Building

This building accommodates ESTEC’s technical library and was designed by renowned Dutch architect Aldo van Eyck. It also holds the main conference centre where Astronauts such as Yasjka Meijer, Claudie Haignere, Jean-Jacques Favier, and Ulf Merbold, and space experts such as Matt Taylor, the renowned Rosetta project scientist on the ESA’s comet odyssey would be giving lectures and presentations throughout the day (along with other presentations in the Escape tennis hall, the open stage, Erasmus auditorium, and NL space tent). I enter the building and immediately turn right following the crowd, and in my haste accidentally, and rather disappointingly miss the gift shop on the left. I was met with exhibits and displays in:

Big Missions for Small Satellites

Small but smart, the ESA’s cubic-metre-scale Proba satellites flight-test new technologies, where visitors had the opportunity to meet the team that makes them happen.

Space Science

ESA’s missions of discovery to the Solar System and beyond; visitors had the opportunity to learn about ExoMars hunting life on the Red Planet, BepiColombo to Mercury, Gaia to map our stellar neighbourhood, and Euclid to prove Dark Matter and Dark energy.

Technology Transfer

Basically, bringing space technologies back to Earth to serve as the basis of new businesses and services. There was also the facilities in place for children to play space-base video games, some adults too, and try out advanced navigation applications.

Main Corridor

Think of this as a 200m-long corridor dating back to ESTEC’s earliest days – as the backbone of the establishment, linking together administration and project offices with technical laboratories and the satellite testing area, with exhibits and displays lining the entire route from:

Planetary Society

The International non-profit organisation dedicated to advocating for astronomy and space exploration.

Space Missions Inside Out

An exhibit that was asking (and also explaining the answer); “What does it take to build a space mission from first concepts to a flying satellite delivering data and products?” and “How can we build software which is safe to run on an embedded computer and do what it should?”

Glow in the Dark Earth Observation

A truly fascinating experimental dark room used where members of the public can view normally invisible plant fluorescence, something that shall be used by the upcoming FLEX satellite to understand how productive plants really are.

Tomorrow’s Space

A hands-on display, including demonstrations of next-step space technologies currently under study by the ESA’s Advanced Concepts Team think tank.

Clean Space

A serious subject for all ages explaining the nature of ESA’s initiative to safeguard the Earth and space environments and tackle space debris. I had the pleasure of speaking with the crew responsible for ‘Clean Space’ at the ESA’s Operational Centre in March 2017 (documented in an earlier blog post), where we discussed the fact that 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.

Space Navigation

Here, the question is asked; “Can you capture a drifting satellite?” If so, visitors had the opportunity to demonstrate their skills. It was advertised as “try it for yourself”, where visitors could learn the secrets to ESA’s spacecraft guidance, navigation and controls from experts. If you could successfully manage that, you were rewarded with a certificate.

Space Plane

This is the actual drop test model of ESA’s IXV space plane that was built to be dropped from a helicopter and parachuted into the Mediterranean. It’s aim was to ensure the actual flight model would survive splashdown at the end of its plunge from space.

Visit the Labs

The Laboratory Corridor is home to ESTEC’s suite of technical laboratories, for the testing of candidate materials, components and equipment and investigating post-launch mission ‘anomalies.’ The ESA maintains a Europe-wide network of specialised laboratories supplementing the technical services and competence provided by the ESTEC laboratories Test Centre, which we’ll get to a little later. These specialist centres provide important benefits to European space programmes and industrial competitiveness. A set of state-of-the-art engineering laboratories; the ESA Propulsion Laboratory (EPL), the Robotics and Automation Laboratory, the Optics Laboratory, the Open-Electronics Laboratory, the Mechanical Systems Laboratory, Avionics Laboratory, Electromagnetic Compatibility and Magnetostatic Laboratory, the Antenna Test and RF Payload Systems Laboratory, Power Systems Laboratory, Solar Generator Laboratory, Telerobotics & Haptics laboratory, and the Materials and Electrical Components Laboratory, verify a spacecraft or satellite’s suitability for use by simulating space conditions as closely as possible. Again, we are offered no-shortage of exhibits to peruse, including:

Weather Watch

An exhibit on Europe’s MetOp Second Generation missions, whose close-up view from polar orbit is sharpening global weather forecasting and climate models.

Mapping Air Quality

The Copernicus Sentinel-5P satellite, whose instrument has been developed in the Netherlands , that launched on October 13th. Sentinel-5P is a small scientific satellite that contributes to the Europe’s Copernicus programme, and is dedicated to Earth science and observation. It focuses primarily on the planet’s atmosphere, detecting and monitoring trace gases in the troposphere – the lowest region of Earth’s atmosphere.

Mapping the Wind

An exhibit of the ESA’s laser-based Aeolus mission that will provide data on the world’s winds from orbit to improve weather forecasts.

High-Altitude Airship

A planned Helium airship mission designed for ‘near space’ observations of terrestrial regions of high interest. I hasten to add that the airship itself was not exhibited in the corridor at ESTEC.

Testing the Limits

An exhibit that explains how the ESA is pushing the boundaries of material technology for space applications, and how and why they qualify materials for the harsh space environment.

Earth-observing Ground Truth Vehicle

Parked outside the Lab corridor; is the testbed vehicle used for gathering data to measure air quality.

Hypergravity Centrifuge

Part of ESTEC’s Life Sciences Lab, the ESA’s Large Diameter Centrifuge – or LDC –  is set spinning behind bulletproof glass to produce extreme gravity levels for scientific experiments. The queue outside the LDC bent around the corner of the neighbouring building, but it was moving as visitors continuously passed by the windows of the LDC running in full flow.

Over 8m across and capable of spinning 67 times-per-minute, the LDC works at the other end of the gravity scale. Countless research centrifuges have been built and used for life sciences, plant, animal, and the more commonly seen human studies. Centrifuges have proven to be very valuable to measure and understand how weight has an impact on life and physical systems. And this one is no different, it’s running, and it looks spectaular. The coriolis acceleration is a type of g-force-field that upon moving objects within rotating system such as the Earth or a centrifuge, and is due to the angular motion in two planes. Any acceleration above Earth’s 1g, is a valuable tool to learn about the effect of gravity on biological and non-biological systems. It is an effect of rotation that contributes to the impurity of the gravity generated by a rotating system. The gondolas on this particular centrifuge do not, and cannot hold humans. They are 60x60x80cm and are used to house laboratory, and satellite equipment. In the case of nominal condition, the LDC has a maximum speed of 20g, with a minimum speed-up time from 1 to 20g in 60 seconds. Within an emergency stop procedure the LDC can stop from 20 to 1g within 30 seconds. All this ground based research provides a solid basis for space flight related studies.

Satellite Test Centre

Satellites are expensive, and once in orbit, they cannot be fixed. This is why a satellite must be tested thoroughly before it is sent into space. A carefully controlled and air-conditioned environment, ESTEC’s Test Centre enables complete satellites to go through all necessary pre-flight tests in a single location with quick response times – including exposure to prolonged vacuum, extremes of temperature, the simulated vibrations and noise of launch.

Phenix Thermal Vacuum Chamber

This 11.8m-long pressure chamber serves to subject all satellites to space-quality vacuum. It is also fitted with a thermal tent that can induce extremely rapid temperature shifts, to check the test satellite’s thermal resilience.

Large European Acoustic Facility

The Large European Acoustic Facility – or LEAF – is Europe’s most powerful sound system. One wall of the chamber – which stands 11m wide by 9m deep and 16.4m high – is embedded with enormous sound horns. Nitrogen shot through them can produce up to more than 154 decibels of noise, like standing close to multiple jets taking off!

Hertz Radio Frequency Test Chamber

ESA’s Hertz Chamber performs radio frequency testing of large antenna systems or entire satellites. Isolated from the outside world with radio-and sound-absorbing internal walls, the chamber simulates the boundless conditions of space.

The Erasmus Centre for Human Spaceflight

This is ESTEC’s centre of competence for human spaceflight activities, supporting ISS operations and experiments while assisting users of all ESA’s microgravity experimentation platforms, from drop towers to parabolic flights to experimental capsules to the ISS – and beyond. It’s a veritable feast of ESTECs accomplishments.

Columbus Module

The centre of the hall exhibits a 1:1 replica of Europe’s laboratory aboard the International Space Station. The laboratory is a cylindrical module with two end cones. It is 4,477 mm (15 ft) in external diameter and 6,871 mm (23 ft) in overall length, excluding the projecting external experiment racks. Its shape is very similar to that of the Multi-Purpose Logistics Modules (MPLMs), since both were designed to fit in the cargo bay of a Space Shuttle orbiter. The room also contains:

Model Space Station

Above our heads is a 1:10 model of the ISS, complete with a live explanation of its construction process by one of many ESTEC engineers scattered around the hall.

Orion: Next Step in Human Spaceflight

A place where you could find out about how and why the ESA is collaborating with NASA on the European Service Module of the Orion spacecraft designed for deep space.


Yes, space farming. An exhibit about how and why the growing of plants is helping to feed astronauts in space. ESA has a dedicated facility aboard the International Space Station to grow seedlings for several days with proper light and nutrients. In addition, on Earth, parabolic flights are run each year offering high-quality research studying the effects of rapid changes in gravity on plant growth.

Microgravity Research Platforms

Here visitors can learn about the ESA’s methods of accessing weightlessness for research, from drop towers to parabolic flights, to orbital capsules to the International Space Station.

Space Handshake

A place where visitors can have a go at a haptic control system for space robot control, courtesy of the Telerobotics & Haptics laboratory.

Planetary Robotics Lab

The ESA’s active ‘Mars Yard’, used to test advanced rovers for alien planets.

FOTON-7 Test capsule

Foton is a series of Russian science satellites and reentry vehicle test programs. Although unmanned, the design was adapted from the manned Vostok spacecraft capsule. The primary focus of the Foton project is materials science research, but some missions have also carried experiments for other fields of research, including biology. This particular exhibit is Foton-7, that has completed 7 successful missions to date, 35 experiments per mission, space exposure experiments, and re-entry experiments.

ExoMars – Schiaparelli Lander

I’ll be brief, as it doesn’t end well; Launched together with the ExoMars Trace Gas Orbiter (TGO) on 14 March 2016, Schiaparelli attempted a landing on the surface of Mars on the 19th October 2016. Telemetry signals from Schiaparelli were lost about one minute from the surface during the final landing stages. On the 21st of October 2016, NASA released an image by their Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter showing what appeared to be, the lander’s crash site.

But, there is a little bit of a happy ending; The Schiarapelli demonstrator lander transmitted during its descent, and some telemetry was successfully returned. About 600mb of data, amounting to about 80% of telemetry, were relayed to Earth and was used to investigate the failure modes of the lander’s technology.

Atmospheric Re-Entry Demonstrator

The Advanced Re-entry Demonstrator – or ARD – was a ESA suborbital reentry vehicle, and was Europe’s first complete space mission. It is a thing of beauty. It was developed and operated for experimental purposes, specifically to validate the multiple reentry technologies integrated upon it and the vehicle’s overall design, as well as to gain greater insight into the various phenomenon encountered during reentry.

The ARD only performed a single spaceflight. On the 21st of October 1998, it reached a recorded altitude of 830 km. The ARD performed a guided reentry back to Earth before splashing down relatively close to its intended target point in the Pacific Ocean after one hour and 41 minutes of flight.

And with that, it was back out to the sunlight.

Escape Building

The ESTEC Escape Building lives up to it’s name, it is the social and recreation centre for ESTEC’s 2700 personnel, with sports facilities, club rooms, a bar and canteen. Today’s event mostly converted what looked liked several basketball courts into one large exhibition hall, including:

Education Zone

Inspiring the future: No longer is ‘space education’ limited to astronomy, space sciences and engineering related subjects. Here, there was plenty of information on resources for school kids and university students; where visitors could speak to the ESA Education team.

Education Lectures

As the name suggests; Visitors can attend lectures from speakers throughout the day from ESA education.

CanSat Exhibits

A CanSat is a satellite small enough to fit inside a drink can, here, visitors were able to learn about how small but beautiful little space-technology is changing the future.

Do it Yourself Rockets for Kids

Paper rocket making for younger children, simple as that, pretty self-explanatory really. Looked like fun!

Face Painting

Get a space face: turn in to anything on or off out planet, and have your photo taken with the ESA mascot, Paxi.

EDRS Space Challenge

A fun event that called all kids aged 5-12 to take part in an ESTEC-wide treasure hunt based around the EDRS laser-communications satellites. The prize, a LEGO model of the EDRS laser-communications satellite itself! I did it, and I got one! Oh, I’m 36 years old (at the time of writing).

Astronaut Autographs

There are a series of tables lining an entire length of a wall where guest astronauts were sitting and would autograph anything and everything somebody presented them with, for free. The astronauts at the event were; Jean-Jacques Favier – A French astronaut who flew on the 1996 STS-78 Space Shuttle mission, and conducted over 40 science experiments within the shuttle’s ESA-made SpaceLab laboratory module. Dirk Frimont – An astrophysicist and the first Belgian in space. Claudie Haignere – A medical doctor, becoming the first French woman in space when she visited the Mir space station in 1996, and who went on to become the first European woman to visit the International Space Station in 2001. Ulf Merbold – The first ESA astronaut to fly in space, the first European to fly on the Space Shuttle in 1983, and the first ESA astronaut to fly on the Russian Soyuz. Ernst Messerschmid – A physics professor who flew on the STS-61A Space Shuttle mission in 1985 and who went on to head the European Astronaut Centre. Dumitru-Dorin Prunariu – An aerospace engineer who became the first Romanian to fly in space in 1981 when he flew on a Soyuz to sty on the Salyut 6 Space Station. Andre Kuipers – This Dutch astronaut (and easily the most popular of all the astronauts here given his Nationality) has flown twice to the International Space Station, his first flight involved an 11-day mission, his second involved a 6-Month mission in 2011-2012. This second mission broke the record for the longest European spaceflight at that time. And finally but at not at all least, Michael Foale – The UK born NASA astronaut flew on six space missions, including a 1997 tour on the Mir Space Station where he contended with the aftermath of its collision with a Progress supply spacecraft, followed by a mission to repair the Hubble Space Telescope, and a stay on the International Space Station.

Talking Space

Next door, lectures from astronauts and space experts were taking place all day within the Escape Tennis Hall. It was in this hall that I heard Michael Foale’s astonishing lecture.

NL Space

The NL Space tent brought together space experts and businesses from across the Netherlands to present their world-class solutions to global challenges. One particular exhibit stand I had to attend was ‘The Netherlands Organisation’ – or TNO – The manufacturer of the SOFIA Telescope secondary mirror.

SOFIA, the Stratospheric Observatory for Infrared Astronomy is located on a Boeing 747SP that has been modified to include a large door in the fuselage that can be opened whilst in flight to allow a 2.5m diameter reflecting telescope to be used at altitudes of about 41,000 ft, allowing it to rise above almost all of the water vapor in the Earth’s atmosphere which blocks some infrared wavelengths. At the aircraft’s cruising altitude, 85% of the full infrared range will be available to the telescope.

And with that, the day was over.

If you remember back at the start of this article, I said that with regards to space; the challenges are immense. Well, after six hours of my own exploration, speaking to ESTEC specialist teams, experts in all facets of space, viewing a globally unique suite of technical laboratories, and marvelling at Europe’s largest satellite test facilities; ESTEC is a prime example of using the fascination of its unique and pioneering space programme for the benefit of the younger generation. To this end, the ESA inspires and supports STEM education through a wide range of projects and initiatives. The next generation should grow up with the word ‘space’ on their lips, from astronauts, to telescopes, to deep space exploration to Martian rovers, sparking an interest of pupils often goes together with offering an emotional and sensorial experience that is able to trigger their curiousity – the first step in their learning process. Young people are drawn to space, as I was, and yet in my seven years of secondary school study of physics, mathematics or technology, I wasn’t shown a Shuttle launch or told ‘by learning this you could ride and/or build that’. I feel that the ESA, is actively signifying young peoples future and the lives that lie before them, using examples from space in the classroom to teach various subjects reinforces that space is not just a place of the imagination.

Those challenges, no-longer seem so immense.

Entrance is free. Yet all visitors my register to gain entry. I’ll see you there next year.

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