Sentinel2Went! – A long night in Darmstadt

In a break from my usual posts I offer some thoughts on the launch event for Sentinel-2B held at the European Space Agency’s operations centre (ESOC) on the 6-7th March. All opinions expressed here are my own and I fully appreciate they may not shared by all readers (disclaimer over!)

As I write this, i’m sitting in a hotel room in Darmstadt, Germany after attending the ESA launch event for Sentinel-2B last night (and early this morning!)

Sentinel-2B is the fifth satellite in the Sentinel series of Earth observation platforms launched as part of the European Community’s Copernicus programme. Along with its sister satellite Sentinel-2A it will provide frequently updated optical data on global land use, vegetation cover and coastal changes. All of the data gathered will be freely available as part of Copernicus to aid planners, climate scientists and policy makers and even, in extreme cases, to aid disaster relief efforts.

As part of their social outreach efforts, ESA invited over 100 social media communications to attend the launch event at their operations centre, ESOC. The event brought together a wide variety of people from points as far afield as Venezuela and Australia, but with a common interest in the use of space systems to improve our ability to better understand what’s happening back here on terra firma.

The programme for the day included a detailed tour of ESOC to see the range of activities undertaken at the centre including space debris tracking, earth science & astronomy mission control rooms and ground station positioning. Informative presentations on pre-flight milestones and simulations helped give the day’s events additional context.

Sentinel-2B was launched from Kourou, French Guiana onboard the small European Vega launcher. This was the ninth launch of Vega which features three solid propellant stages topped off with the liquid-fuelled (and therefore restartable) AVUM stage which performed 2 burns to deliver its payload, followed by a final deorbit manoeuvre. Sentinel-2B was placed in a high-inclination sun-synchronous orbit on the opposite side of earth to Sentinel-2A, meaning the whole globe can be imaged once every 5 days, with higher latitudes being covered even more regularly.

The launch and orbital insertion went off without incident, a ‘nice boring flight’ – in space flight nominal is always best! Acquisition of signal came in the early hours of the morning leading to well deserved celebrations for the ESA operations teams in Darmstadt and Kourou.

Beyond the mission’s science and gaining a better understanding of operations at ESOC I guess there were a some broad themes that I felt i’d like to address post-event.

Firstly, I think the continuing addition of capability through new Sentinel launches offers me a great deal of hope at a time when I, in common with many others, feel a general concern about the current political pressures on earth science. Given the many challenges caused by an ever increasing global population and changes, whether natural or human-generated, to our climate it feels that timely and detailed data is the key to understanding systems and giving us options.

History has shown that it is almost impossible to make consistently effective policy decisions from a position of ignorance – the more we know, the better we can cope with challenging situations or find new opportunities to create positive outcomes. A position where reinforcement of an ideological viewpoint is sought through the decision to curtail the gathering of data that can either support or refute that position seems clearly untenable. Yet this appears to be the geopolitical situation we now find ourselves in with both NASA’s Earth Science programme and the work of the NOAA under threat.

It is imperative that we continue to improve our understanding of the Earth’s complex systems rather than didactically stating that our opinions will surely be born out, therefore empirical data is unnecessary. The steady denuding of trust in science by those who feel comfort in the expedience of easy answers can only lead to an erosion of our understanding and ability to react.

My second overriding impression in the aftermath of the Sentinel2Go event is one of slight sadness and not inconsiderable frustration that, presented with yet another great example of what can be achieved through pan-European cooperation, my own nation is currently engaged in what I sincerely hope won’t prove to be a messy divorce from Europe. For me personally as a space enthusiast, i’ve always seen ESA as an exemplar for what can be achieved when the best abilities of the many partner nations are brought together. I don’t claim the system is perfect, there have been failures along the way when partisan interests have led to tensions or conflicting priorities – the Hermes spaceplane would be an example here – but ESA has built strong capabilities across earth observation, astronomy and planetary missions throughout its history.

Without wishing to dwell on the politics of the situation, I sincerely hope the UK’s decision to leave the European Union does not signal a wish to ‘go it alone’ in all respects. The burgeoning UK space industry needs more than vague promises of domestic spaceports to fulfill its potential.

My final theme is the use of social media events as an outreach tool. I have read criticisms of such events that they do little to further the wider understanding of the mission and that they can represent an effective outsourcing of the PR responsibility for cost-conscious agencies. Without knowing the facts & figures of yesterday’s activities versus more traditional press based events i’m really not in an informed enough position to comment on the latter point beyond noting that this was an extremely well organised event with wide participation from all parts of ESOC. But I do feel the growing embrace and engagement of the social media community by agencies such as ESA can really represent an effective form of outreach on their behalf, communicating both the mission and agency’s aims and aiding transparency and accountability to a tax paying public who ultimately underwrite their activities.

It is absolutely right that ESA’s missions become our missions, all the more so when – as in the case of the Sentinel constellation – we stand to benefit so directly from the knowledge they acquire.

Sentinel2Go participants and the ESA social media team

On a personal note I’d like to thank the ESA Social Media team for their hard work on #Sentinel2Go and all of the ESOC staff who so freely gave up their time, communicating not only their knowledge, but also their clear pride and enthusiasm for their work.

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