Four decades of tracking European spacecraft

May 19, 2015, European Space Agency
Malargüe station. Credit: ESA

Forty years ago this week, a satellite ground station in Spain became the first to be assigned to what would become ESA. Since then, the network – Estrack – has expanded worldwide and today employs cutting-edge technology to link mission controllers with spacecraft orbiting Earth, voyaging deep in our Solar System or anywhere in between.

On 19 May 1975, a ground station at Villafranca del Castillo, Spain, built for the International Ultraviolet Explorer satellite was assigned to ESRO to support future ESA missions.

Later that month, ESRO merged with ELDO to form ESA, and the Villafranca station became the kernel of Estrack.

The 15 m-diameter parabolic dish antenna of the Villafranca station has been part of many major ESA missions, including Marecs, Exosat, ISO, Integral and Cluster, and, more recently, XMM and ATV .

It was later joined by similar stations in Sweden, Spain, French Guiana, Belgium and Australia, all optimised for tracking satellites near Earth. The original Villafranca location has since become ESAC, the European Space Astronomy Centre, ESA's major establishment in Spain.

Worldwide network

Estrack has evolved with the expanding needs of ESA's science, Earth and exploration missions. Today, there are 10 stations in seven countries, all centrally managed from ESOC, the European Space Operations Centre, Darmstadt, Germany.

Tracking spacecraft deep across the void. Credit: ESA

The essential task of Estrack stations is to communicate with , transmitting commands and receiving scientific data and spacecraft status information. They also gather 'radiometric' information to help mission controllers know the location, trajectory and speed of their spacecraft.

Tracking is provided through all phases of a mission, from 'LEOP' – the critical Launch and Early Orbit Phase – through to routine operations and ultimately deorbiting and safe disposal. Estrack also tracks rockets flying from Kourou in French Guiana.

In a typical year, stations provide over 45 000 hours of tracking to more than 20 missions, with an enviable service availability rate above 99%.

Building Europe's deep-space capability

In the 2000s, the first of three 35 m-diameter Deep Space Antennas was built in New Norcia, Australia, followed by stations at Cebreros, Spain, and Malargüe, Argentina. These feature some of the world's best tracking station technology and enable communications with spacecraft exploring planets, watching the Sun or located at the scientifically crucial Sun–Earth Lagrange points.

In January 2014, Estrack received signals and sent commands to Rosetta, then travelling some 800 million km from Earth.

Villafranca tracking station 1977. Credit: ESA

Estrack routinely communicates with missions voyaging across our Solar System, including not only ESA missions like Rosetta, Venus Express and Mars Express but also partner missions like Japan's Hayabusa-2, heading towards an asteroid landing in 2018.

Global cooperation

The capabilities of the network enable Estrack stations to support missions of other space agencies in the US, France, Germany, Japan, Russia and China.

In future, the three deep-space stations will be upgraded to use ultra-high radio frequencies, necessary to boost scientific data delivery from missions like BepiColombo and Juice. Of course, the network will continue to work with Earth observation missions and perform critical LEOP and launcher tracking.

Happy birthday, Estrack! And congratulations on four decades of linking people with spacecraft travelling to the frontiers of human knowledge.

Explore further: Image: New Norcia deep-space ground tracking station

Related Stories

Image: New Norcia deep-space ground tracking station

March 18, 2015

Twelve years ago this month, in March 2003, ESA inaugurated a new deep-space ground tracking station 8 km south of the town of New Norcia, which is about 150 km north of Perth, in Western Australia.

Tracking Japan's asteroid impact mission

April 30, 2015

ESA is set to support Japan's 'touch-and-go' Hayabusa-2 spacecraft, now en route to a little-known asteroid, helping to boost the scientific return from this audacious mission.

Huge new ESA tracking station is ready for duty

November 5, 2012

To keep in contact with an ever growing armada of spacecraft ESA has developed a tracking station network called ESTRACK. This is a worldwide system of ground stations providing links between satellites in orbit and ESA's ...

ESA transmits first-ever telecommands to Chinese satellite

November 1, 2007

For the first time, ESA tracking stations have transmitted telecommands to a Chinese satellite. This morning at 07:15 CET (06:15 UTC), China's mission control reported that commands transmitted from Maspalomas station had ...

Deep-space stations gain made-in-Europe hearing boost

July 19, 2013

Picking up ultra-weak signals from spacecraft exploring deep in our Solar System requires cooling a detector to within a few degrees of absolute zero. Thanks to ESA's support, the technology is now available in Europe for ...

Recommended for you

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.