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It’s easy to take spacecraft communications for granted. Yet the art and science involved in sending commands to a satellite and receiving data back is of paramount importance. Without highly skilled communications engineers, there would be no space missions.
This is why ESA’s Education Office is now looking for 22 engineering students who would like to be introduced to the fascinating world of spacecraft communications. The Ladybird Guide to Spacecraft Communications will run between 14 and 17 February 2017 at the #esa Academy – Training and Learning Centre in Redu, Belgium.
The selected students could not be coming to a better place to learn about spacecraft communications. ESA’s Redu Centre is part of ESA's tracking station network – ESTRACK – a global system of ground stations that provides links between satellites in orbit and the European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) in Darmstadt, Germany.
The core ESTRACK network has nine stations located in seven countries. At Redu, the centre-piece is the 15m radio dish, but there is also a 13.5m and a 2.4m dish. In between lectures, the students will visit the PROBA satellite’s control room. They will also visit antennae and see the back-end equipment, as well as talk to ESA’s Operations engineers.
The course will consist of formal lectures involving heavy interaction. The training will be provided by an #esa expert who works for the Advanced Mission Concepts Section at ESOC. He will relay real stories of operations engineers battling spacecraft – sometimes winning, and sometimes losing.
The way communications systems are designed can have a crucial impact on how they are used and what problems can occur. For example, in 2001, when ESA’s Huygens space probe was on its way to Saturn’s moon Titan, an #esa communications engineer noticed a subtle anomaly in the com-system’s test results.
Thanks to his dedication, a team of engineers worked out that a mistake in the implementation of the communications system meant that all landing data would be lost unless action was taken. Working with the knowledge of the faulty communications system, engineers designed a whole new scenario that kept the lander in contact at all times. Without their expertise, we still would not know what lies below the clouds covering Titan’s surface.
The students will take part in a team activity in which they will be asked to design a communications system for a mission which will then experience an anomaly taken from a real life scenario. They will be presented with the same information that would be available to an operations team at the time of the problem, and will need to answer two important questions: "What went wrong?" and, more importantly, "What do we do now?”.
At the end of the course, the students will have a solid understanding of the challenges involved in communicating with a spacecraft as well as its subsystems (both onboard and on the ground): what can go wrong, troubleshooting, and traps to be avoided during operations and testing.
Students who would like to apply for the training course must submit their applications by 12 December 2016 23:59 pm CET.
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