An annotated, highly unofficial glossary explaining who’s who in the mission control zoo. Channelling your inner spacecraft operations engineer – or rock singer – begins with knowing the lingo!
Like some, you may have recently seen a fabulously fun video ballad entitled European Space-ody (rhymes with ‘rhapsody’), which can be found where all famous videos are found these days, in YouTube.
European Space-ody was written, produced, performed and recorded by the Film Academy and the Musicians Group, two of the employee social clubs at ESA’s ESOC space operations centre, Darmstadt, Germany.
The lyrics make reference to many of the real-life specialist roles at ESA’s mission control centre, which is not surprising as many of the performers are the real-life specialists fulfilling roles at ESA’s mission control centre.
And if you watch closely, you may spot a certain, famous musician in a cameo walk-on. While he may not be a spacecraft operations engineer, he is a bona fide space scientist and in fact is working with the science team on ESA’s upcoming Hera planetary defence mission! But I digress… 😉
Long story short, we thought it might be helpful to provide an annotated glossary explaining who these roles are, and give a few comments on what they do.
Last but not least: Many thanks to the folks over at SpaceRocks for hosting Space-ody!
SpaceRocks is a celebration of the art, music, and culture inspired by space exploration, in association with ESA. Their first event was held in 2018 and they host a weekly livestream called Uplink which is hosted by co-founders Alexander Milas and Mark McCaughrean, ESA’s senior advisor for science and exploration. Find out more at www.spacerocksofficial.com
17 December 2020: Join the Space Rocks Uplink livestream later today to find out more about what happens at ESA with former Head of Mission Operations, Paolo Ferri, and Spacecraft Operations Engineer Armelle Hubault – SpaceRocks will be live from 19:00 (GMT) / 20:00 (CET) / 14:00 (EST) via http://www.youtube.com/spacerocks.
Update 18 Dec: Watch the Uplink replay here:
European Space-ody glossary
Channelling your inner spacecraft operations engineer – or rock singer – begins with knowing the lingo!
- ARM and GO – two buttons that have to be clicked consecutively in the Mission Control System in order to send a telecommand to the spacecraft. There are two of them so that no one could send commands by mistake.
- Anomaly – something out of the ordinary, caused by anything from a glitch in a computer to a solar flare. No one in OPS likes anomalies, except maybe PA (see below).
- Bitrate – the speed of a data connection (in the video, mentioned as the bitrate between a spacecraft and ground control).
- Brian May – famous rock musician and scientist.
- FOD (Flight Operations Director) – head of the Mission Control Team, i.e. the ‘team of teams’ controlling a spacecraft, especially after it is injected into orbit by its launcher rocket. Includes the Flight Control Team, supported by teams from flight dynamics, ground stations, software systems and several other functional areas. Often heard conducting the GO/NO-GO rollcall on the voice loop.
- Flight Dynamics – a pool of immensely gifted and talented experts on orbital mechanics and complex mathematics involved in attitude and orbit determination and control. Revered by the rest of OPS (and fortunately not actually armed, as depicted in the video, with ray guns).
- Fly-by – a critical manoeuvre using a planet’s gravity to accelerate (or decelerate) a spacecraft without using fuel. ESA’s Solar Orbiter and the ESA-Jaxa BepiColombo spacecraft are conducting 18 flyby manoeuvres as part of their missions to the Sun and Mercury, respectively.
- Main Control Room (MCR) – the coolest room at ESA mission control, if not the entire Solar System and named one of the ‘five coolest mission control rooms of all time’ by the BBC. Provides facilities for the Mission Control Team to work together during critical operations for any mission, such as launch or entering orbit around a planet like Mars, and provides back-up and redundancy for uninterrupted spacecraft control. Conversely, routine operations are run from separate, smaller Dedicated Control Rooms (DCRs).
- OPS (Directorate of Operations) – primarily located at ESA’s ESOC Space Operations Centre but with numerous colleagues working at other ESA centres in Europe and ground stations around the world. Today, OPS teams at ESOC are flying 15 missions comprising 22 spacecraft. OPS colleagues at ESA’s European Space Security and Education Centre, at Redu, Belgium, fly 3 more spacercaft.
- Product Assurance (PA) representative – a specialist supporting the Flight Control Team whenever anything goes wrong, helping manage risk and keeping track of ground segment and spacecraft configuration.
- SOE (Spacecraft Operations Engineer) – a specialist working on the Flight Control Team, typically one for each of the spacecraft’s functional areas, including attitude and orbit control, power and thermal and onboard computer systems. These experts know their spacecraft inside out. Recently, while teleworking from home under Coronavirus measures, SOEs have had to start dealing with cats, too, according to The Atlantic magazine.
- SOM (Spacecraft Operations Manager) – head of the Flight Control Team flying a mission, which can comprise one, two, three or multiple spacecraft.
“In space, teamwork is crucial to success. The stakes are high, missions can be valued in the billions of euro and the scientific data may be literally irreplaceable. The spacecraft operations manager builds a team and assumes responsibility – and when problems happen, time is critical and solutions unobvious, it’s the SOM and his or her team who take the lead,” says Paolo Ferri, former Head of Mission Operations at ESA.
- Safe Mode – a pre-programmed, low-functioning state of the spacecraft automatically assumed when something has gone wrong and on-board autonomy could not resolve it. In a Safe Mode, the spacecraft switches off any complex functions, like firing its thrusters, shuts down science observations, turns its main antenna toward Earth (to ensure communications), solar panels toward the Sun (to ensure power) and waits for help from ground. Recovering from a Safe Mode means calling in an SOE, maybe even the SOM, eventually resulting in an investigation by PA. Typically happens on weekends, holidays and at the end of shift, when the SpaCon is alone in the control room.
Watch ESA’s dramatisation, The Burn, to see how Mission Control Teams train to handle unexpected safe modes.
- Scheduling – central office for allocating limited ground station time to individual spacecraft.
- Scientists – We make sure they get to the destinations – planets, comets, asteroids, &etc. – they dream of exploring. BTW: One or two may have wandered into some of the shots in Space-ody. Can you spot Matt Taylor (aka Dr Matt ‘Death Metal Unicorn’ Taylor)? Or Brian May (aka brianmayforreal)? #Hera #CometInterceptor
- SimOff (Simulations Officer) – a specialist supporting – and tormenting – the entire Mission Control Team during their months-long ‘sim campaign’ training for critical operations, such as launch.
- SpaCon (Spacecraft Controller) – works ‘on console’ in the control room, and is the only member of the team who actually transmits commands to the spacecraft. Typically, the most junior member of the team.
- Uplink – sending commands from ground to the spacecraft via a ground station.
- Windmilling – an uncontrolled rotation of a spacecraft performing an aerobraking manoeuvre caused by e.g. asymmetric atmospheric resistance.
ESA OPS in Twitter: From Earth orbit to deep space: sharing the excitement of realtime mission operations at the European Space Agency