A 36,000 kilometre-journey into orbit
A successful Launch and Early Operations Phase for the MTG-I1 satellite takes a close-knit team and years of careful planning
When the first Meteosat Third Generation satellite, MTG-I1, separated from its launch vehicle, the satellite embarked on a long, looping journey up to its target orbit 36,000km above the equator. Find out from Telespazio’s Ernesto Cerone and Glauco di Genova about what it takes to prepare the satellite for its crucial trip to its final destination.
A defining phase
The LEOP began after the Ariane 5 launcher propelled the satellite through the Earth’s atmosphere and out of the Earth’s powerful gravitational pull at a blazing 36,500 kilometres per hour. At an altitude of a few hundred metres and its work done, the launcher released the satellite. For the first time ever, the satellite floated free.
This marked the start of the LEOP, the period during which the satellite reaches some of its most crucial milestones. These milestones are essential for the success of the Meteosat Third Generation mission as a whole, to protect lives and property by collecting crucial data that will greatly advance weather forecasting and contribute to vital climate records.
The satellite’s first LEOP milestone occurred when the controllers made contact with the free-floating satellite by connecting it with the ground station in Malindi, Kenya via a radio link. Then the satellite had to begin to provide its own power. Through an automated sequence, it deployed its solar arrays – large wing-like panels – and oriented them toward the sun. From there, the team in Fucino confirmed that the satellite was at the correct altitude before commanding it to perform a series of boost manoeuvres.
These manoeuvres raise the satellite’s altitude, moving it into increasingly larger orbits until it reaches an altitude of nearly 36,000km. The final step will be to command the satellite to drift along that orbit until it arrives just over the Ivory Coast, where it will travel in sync with the rotating Earth for the rest of its lifetime.
Where expertise meets surprise
Ensuring the LEOP is a success requires the work of a number of dedicated experts.
Ernesto Cerone, along with Glauco Di Genova, leads the flight operations team, which are working in shifts around the clock for the length of the in-progress LEOP, expected to take about ten days. This team, supported by EUMETSAT’s LEOP Project Manager Julia Hunter-Anderson and EUMETSAT’s MTG Operations Preparations Engineer Maria Alonso Gonzalez, command the satellite and receive information about its location and health.
“The MTG mission is really important for Europe and is a mission with a satellite that flies for the first time,” explained Cerone, who is the LEOP Flight Operations Director at Telespazio. “When a satellite is new, it means that the procedures are new and the behaviour in flight is not known. This could mean that there will be surprises in orbit.
“Luckily, although this is Telespazio’s first LEOP with EUMETSAT, my team has accumulated experience from having done more than thirty LEOPs, so we have a lot of expertise and are ready to act on any possible failures.”
Di Genova, who is Head of the Space Mission Department at Telespazio, sees these potential in-orbit surprises as an opportunity to tap into the team’s creativity.
“You are facing challenges and solving problems – some of which you have not foreseen – so you really have to hone your skills toward the mission objectives. It’s a lot of fun!” he said.
An integrated team
In addition to working with EUMETSAT specialists from flight dynamics, ground support, and quality assurance, this team includes members from the European Space Agency, Thales Alenia Space, and OHB. These experts ensure the orbital manoeuvres are going to plan and that the software used to control the satellite is functioning as it should.
“The collaboration between the people that work together on the LEOP goes beyond a mere contractual relationship,” said Cerone. “We really work together with EUMETSAT as a single, integrated team.”
When the LEOP ends in a few days, Telespazio will hand control of the satellite over to EUMETSAT, who will operate it throughout its lifetime. This handover marks the beginning of the next phase –commissioning – a year-long period during which the instruments will be tested to ensure they are ready to deliver their crucial data to users worldwide.
Hunter-Anderson expects the end of the LEOP to be a pivotal moment for the devoted team.
“We’ve all been working extremely hard for many years and we’ve still got many months to go but it’ll be a good day,” she said. “There will be a lot of relief!”