Behind the Scenes: European Space Operations Centre

07/29/2011 04:57 pm ET | Updated Sep 28, 2011

With the recent end of NASA's manned space shuttle program, millions of interested fans have been left at the proverbial altar wondering, "What's next?" and -- while no single country or agency can wholly respond to this question -- some answers can be found at the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany.

Part of the larger European Space Agency (ESA), the ESOC is undertaking some of the most compelling and contemporary research in the world and is charged with the mission control of all European non-manned missions to space. I was recently granted a behind-the-scenes look at the ESA's German-based command center and was able to speak to four of the scientists and engineers behind these spectacular advances.

Mars Express with Engineer Thomas Ormston
Mars Express (MEX) was launched in mid-2003 and, while one of its main components - the Beagle 2 Mars lander - failed, MEX has yielded some never-before-seen data and images, providing a priceless amount of insight into the past, present and potential future of Mars. For instance, MEX was the first spacecraft to detect methane in Mars' atmosphere and was also the first in discovering Martian sub-surface water, both raising provocative questions regarding the potential for life on the Red Planet. In addition, MEX's mounted VMC camera is the only camera to capture a full-orbit video of any planet other than Earth. As an added bonus, MEX's polar orbit occasionally intersects with Phobos' - one of Mars' two moons - equatorial orbit, providing some insight into the mysterious moon that appears to defy all logic as to its origin in our solar system.

Rosetta Mission with SOM (Spacecraft Operations Manager) Andrea Accomazzo
Seven years into a ten year mission, ESA and ESOC have committed a vast amount of time and effort to Rosetta, a mission whose goal is entirely novel to autonomous space exploration. Recently placed in hibernation, Rosetta is currently the farthest reaching solar-powered spacecraft in history. As of now, Rosetta is orbiting at a distance of 679.7 million kilometers from Earth and will reach its peak distance in December 2012 at 937.1 million kilometers from Earth. Distance is not the name of the game for Rosetta, though, and the scientists and engineers of ESOC will be operating at much higher stakes upon awakening the long-distance spacecraft. ESOC and Rosetta engineers plans to orbit and land on a comet, something that no space agency has ever successfully attempted.

Space Debris with Prof. Dr. Heiner Klinkrad
The problem of space debris (SD) may initially seem trivial but, in reality, orbiting debris is both a major financial liability and a matter of life and death to the mission astronauts themselves. SD will typically impact man-made objects in space at a speed of about 10 kilometers per second. To put this in perspective, machine gun bullets typically are fired at a speed of 800 meters per second. When ESOC scientist Dr. Heiner Klinkrad test-fired a one-centimeter projectile at a "mere" 8 kilometers per second into a solid aluminum block, the results were catastrophic. In particular, notice that - while the projectile didn't fully penetrate the aluminum - the shockwaves it sent fractured the side opposite of impact. If this happened on the ISS, this fracturing would have peppered astronauts with deadly shrapnel. With that in mind, learning how to both mitigate the accumulation of SD and begin planning remediation processes - while navigating the various international political issues that come with removing satellites from orbit - is crucial to the future of our orbital presence around Earth, both manned and autonomous.

ERS-2 De-Orbiting with SOM Dr. Frank Diekmann
When it comes to space programs, a satellite's blast into the cosmos almost certainly overshadows its return journey. Don't tell that to Dr. Diekmann and the control crew of ERS-2, an aging satellite that recently completed its scientific mission and is now being stepped through the Earth's atmosphere in a procedure that, once again, has never been attempted at ESOC. Being an older spacecraft, ERS-2 features a host of technical issues - common to vessels that have endured an extended tour in the rigors of space - and malfunctions have spread to a variety of positioning instruments, making the controlled descent of ERS-2 all the more difficult. Working virtually seven days per week, though, the ERS-2 crew is carefully navigating the lower reaches of orbit at a relatively cozy 690 kilometers above Earth. De-orbiting is not a quick process, though, and while the work of the ERS-2 crew is currently scheduled to end in September 2011, the satellite will continue its slow and steady descent for an additional 10-14 years, eventually vaporizing in Earth's atmosphere.