Mission control engineering at EUMETSAT
A challenging yet enjoyable role, Elena started out as a junior engineer within our Early Career Employment Program and has since then continued along a steady learning curve.
10, November 2020
Could you start by telling us a bit about your role?
I’m a Mission Control Engineer, part of the team responsible for the Monitoring & Control System (MCS) which, to put it simply, is the software acting as an interpreter between the spacecraft and us. As an element of what we call the “Ground Segment”, it allows us to control the satellites orbiting the Earth to support the work that we do here on ground.
The MCS is all about communication and thanks to it, not only are we able to check the status of the spacecraft and make sure we can promptly react in case of anomalies, but also send commands to it and ensure that all the collected scientific data are being received on time and without any losses.
I started working at EUMETSAT as a junior engineer within the Early Career Employment Program (ECEP), having limited experience in spacecraft operations. Since then, my role has given me the opportunity to start a continuous learning process working with experienced people day-to-day, thereby gaining valuable knowledge and expertise.
I consider myself extremely lucky to be part of such an inspiring environment. It has been two years already, and yet I feel like I am still at the very beginning of my career with much more to learn.
Do you have a set of daily tasks or is it different every day?
One of the things I like the most is that every day here is different from the previous one. We are in a period of great changes for the Mission Control Centre, for example, there is the overall re-engineering of the Mission Operations Component (MOC), including a machine virtualisation process, plus the migration to a new version of the MCS. In addition to this, we have other routine tasks and operations preparations (OpsPrep) activities that are not “MCS specific”, but nevertheless require our continuous support such as Satellite-System Verification Tests (SSVTs) for future missions. With satellite launches approaching, these are busy times for EUMETSAT in general.
It’s clear that there’s a lot going on at the moment, which is actually pretty nice. I think that one of the top priorities for recent graduates is not getting bored and, so far, I am happy to say that every day I come in and have plenty of things to do.
As for my specific tasks, I am mostly working on the Sentinel-6/Jason-CS programme, supporting its OpsPrep phase, but I am also following the routine activities for Sentinel-3 because eventually the two missions will be operated in a unified way.
How many people are in your team?
Well, it depends. The definition of “team” here can be a bit tricky and everyone has at least two: a functional team (the MCS team in my case) and a mission team (e.g. Jason-CS). What’s certain is that we are always working in teams, with people from different backgrounds and with various fields of expertise different from your own. As a consequence, you can always get an alternative view of the issue you are facing, allowing for a more comprehensive perspective, which is one of the reasons why I like this job.
Has your role changed over time since you joined?
There have been no big changes, it has been a continuous development with a gradual increase in responsibilities. What I find important is that during the process, I have had the support of my managers. They have always been willing to listen to my concerns and ready to answer my questions. This is a very reassuring feeling for a “relatively-young” professional.
What were you doing before coming to EUMETSAT?
I have been really lucky as I was able to join spacecraft operations right after graduation. I started working as a spacecraft controller at the European Space Operations Centre (ESA/ESOC) on interplanetary missions, specifically ExoMars and Mars Express. One day I was a student and the next, all of a sudden, I was sending commands to man-made objects orbiting Mars - I couldn’t imagine a better start to my career. Aside from the enthusiasm, it was also a great way to learn how to deal with procedures and get familiar with the world of space operations.
A few months later, I got the chance to participate in the launch and early orbit phase (LEOP) of the geostationary spacecraft Hispasat 36W-1, at the German Aerospace Centre (DLR) in Oberpfaffenhofen. This experience, like the Mars Orbit Insertion (MOI) and aerobraking phase for Exomars-TGO before, was completely different from routine operations. During those complex and critical phases the pressure can be high, but on the other hand the excitement is very rewarding. For someone new to the field like I was, it was a steep (yet fun) learning curve.
Do you have any advice for somebody who might like to follow your career path?
I did classical studies in high school and then I studied aerospace engineering. I would not define myself as a “technically-minded person” so I must confess I struggled a bit, at least in the beginning, as I could not see any “practical” application to the theoretical concepts I was studying.
It was when things started to become more “real” that I finally realised it was the right choice. What I specifically love about spacecraft operations is this feeling that something is happening here and now, and your actions have an immediate effect that is tangible and measurable. This is not always the case in the space field: for example, in the early design phases you could work on a project that might become active 10–15 years from now. This can be great as well, but I really enjoy the “thrill” of real-time operations.
As a suggestion then, I would say find something that keeps you motivated to do your best every day and make sure you understand what really drives you. For me, this was particularly important when I had to choose whether to continue doing research after my master’s degree, or get into the operations world.
What are the main challenges you have come across in your role?
You might find this a bit ironic, as I just said that the MCS is all about communications, but sometimes I feel that it is more complicated to deal with people than with satellites. Configuring and setting everything correctly for a spacecraft can be challenging, however when it comes to people there are many more variables involved - and you can’t even look for help in the Standards and ICDs (Interface Control Documents)!
Working in a multicultural environment and with people from heterogeneous backgrounds is one of the biggest challenges, especially when you need to work in a team - effective communication is therefore a key factor for success.
Apart from that of course, we face technical challenges every day - but that’s also one of the greatest things about the job. Finding issues, investigating and eventually sorting them out is very satisfying. Behind every solution to a problem there’s always a group of people that have been working hard to understand and fix it.
What are the things you enjoy the most?
I like all of the challenging aspects mentioned so far and the fact that everything is continuously changing, you never have the feeling of being stuck and there’s always a chance to improve.
Do you have any memorable moments during your time here so far?
In two years we have already completed three SSVTs for Jason-CS and those are always intense days, because after months of preparation the whole team has to work under considerable pressure and make sure goals are achieved in a relatively short time frame. This requires not only hard work, but also great coordination among teams located in different sites, and a bit of flexibility when things don’t go as planned. In the end, the great effort of every team member can make the difference, and everybody tries to do their best - it’s a feeling I love, individuals coming together and achieving something as a group.
Do you live in Darmstadt?
Yes, actually not very far from EUMETSAT at all. When I was working on shifts at ESOC, it was the most convenient location. It’s a 10-minute walk to reach EUMETSAT and everything else is just a few minutes away from me.
What do you like about living in Darmstadt?
Thanks to the many industries and companies involved in the space sector based here, Darmstadt is a very “space-oriented” city, and this is a great opportunity for networking in a multicultural environment. Also, it offers everything you need in your daily life, and Frankfurt is not far in case you fancy the “big-city vibes”.
Having said that, I come from southern Italy, so I must confess I miss the sea, the climate and the food sometimes, as well as family and friends. I have also lived in a few other cities, including Turin, where I studied, and New York, where I lived for some months whilst doing my master thesis research. All of these places start to feel like home after a while, and it’s inevitable to miss all the favourite spots, familiar faces and comforting habits that you left behind. However, another good thing about Darmstadt is that it’s incredibly close to Frankfurt airport, so every place is just a flight away.
What do you do in your spare time?
Apart from travelling and taking pictures, another thing I like to do is bouldering (indoor rock-climbing). This is one of my main hobbies at the moment, and the facility in Darmstadt is really cool - I love it. I started last year and I am still very scared of heights… probably one of the reasons I like it so much is that every route is a challenge for me!
Talking about challenges, learning German has been on my to-do list for a couple of years already, and from time to time I give it a try… not with enough motivation, though!
I also try to make sure I can spend enough time with my friends: not much to say about this, they know how much I value their support.
Then, in the “unlikely event” of finding yourself with more spare time, there are so many social clubs at EUMETSAT and ESOC, that it’s only a matter of choice. For example, this year I joined the sailing club, and I’m currently studying to get the license - I’m really looking forward to it!
Thanks very much to Elena for talking to us about her interesting role!
We hope you’re enjoying this series and if you want more of an inside look at EUMETSAT, check out our Instagram page for regular updates!