ESA and DLR in joint study to support deep space missions
by Staff Writers
Paris (ESA) Apr 04, 2019
An existing deep-space dish antenna at the DLR Weilheim site, near Munich, may offer an almost-readymade solution to the problem of providing sufficient ground station capacity to support ESA's current and future deep-space exploration missions.
Now and in the next few years, ESA is sending some of the most advanced spacecraft ever flown to exotic locations like Mars, Mercury and Jupiter, and these missions all have one thing in common: they need plenty of ground station capacity to download their masses of science data and to enable mission controllers to send up commands.
ESA's tracking station network - Estrack
"The stations were built between 2002 and 2012, and their capacity in transmitting and receiving data will soon be reached, given the ambitious missions like BepiColombo, ExoMars and Juice now being implemented - and the fact that these newer spacecraft can all download tremendous amounts of science data," says Pier Bargellini, responsible for the operation of ESA's ground facilities.
DLR 30 m dish antenna supported ESA missions in the past
This could solve part of the capacity problem on this continent while at the same time reusing existing European infrastructure and reducing the need for costly new construction.
DLR Weilheim features a number of dish antennas with varying sizes and the site is operated 24 hours/day to support near-Earth missions such as TerraSAR-X, TanDEM-X and GRACE Follow On controlled from DLR's German Space Operations Centre at Oberpfaffenhofen. The smaller antennas are also used to support ESA missions orbiting Earth, like Integral.
The 30 m dish antenna supported ESA missions in the past, and is presently used when DLR supports partner agencies, such as downloading data from the Hayabusa 2 mission flown by Japan. It has also recently been used to receive signals from global navigation satellites like GPS and Galileo.
A series of initial tests conducted by DLR and ESA engineers in the past few months proved that the dish and its sophisticated radio equipment could receive signals from current ESA missions, including Gaia and Mars Express.
Engineers from DLR and ESA will continue testing the Weilheim antenna
"To integrate the antenna into the ESA network would be a challenging but rewarding task for DLR."
"In addition to the reception functionality, the antenna could be upgraded to add transmission capabilities. Its overall characteristics makes it ideal to support missions at lunar distances or even missions to the Lagrange points."
In addition to supporting future ESA and European missions, upgrading the dish would also enable DLR to expand its use for their own future missions or for those of partner agencies. Such cross-support arrangements are common in the field of spacecraft operations, and are typically done on an hour-for-hour exchange basis or in exchange for sharing a mission's scientific data.
Engineers from the two agencies will continue testing the Weilheim antenna, with the aim of proving its ability to begin serving as a functional communications backup for ESA missions like Gaia and Mars Express.
Joint study to support deep space missions
"Upgrading the Weilheim antenna to full deep-space capability is a good idea that promises to support not only ESA but also DLR itself, partner agencies and new commercial space actors," says Rolf Densing, ESA's Director of Operations. "And it will provide an excellent return on investment for European taxpayers."
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