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Contact: Karina De Castris
European Space Agency

Controllers prepare for any emergency

The countdown clock is ticking. Tension is mounting at ESOC, ESA's Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt, Germany. In just a few days, on 17 July, one of the most important launches of the year will take place from Baikonur cosmodrome in Kazakhstan.

Engineers and flight controllers have less than a week to be ready for the launch of MetOp-A, Europe's first polar-orbiting weather satellite. In the remaining time, they must complete a hectic schedule of training and computer simulations. Their job is to be prepared for anything.

"The aim of our simulation campaign is to train the flight control teams to react to any unexpected situation," said Piere Bargellini, a Spacecraft Operations Manager at ESOC.

"We started in March with two simulations per week. Until a few days ago, we were very busy finalising the flight procedures to be used for monitoring and controlling the spacecraft."

The flight control team is split into 'A' and 'B' shifts to provide 24-hour coverage during the critical period after launch. This is when the spacecraft will separate from the launcher, deploy its solar array and start to come alive. Everything must take place at the right time and in the correct sequence.

"We start our work some 16 hours before launch, monitoring the long series of activities at Baikonur as they get the Soyuz rocket and MetOp-A ready to launch," said Bargellini.

"We actually assume control one hour and eight minutes after lift off, once the spacecraft has separated from the launcher. We will be very busy as MetOp-A is a complex satellite."