Germany, space

Life in my new orbit!

First of all, this is a late post. Long overdue. I moved to Germany in January 2020 so it’s almost been a year and the ‘new’ in the post title is kinda far fetched.

At ISRO, I worked for 8 years on design, simulation, analysis and testing of Attitude and Orbit Control System (AOCS) for a variety of spacecraft missions. I’ve worked on satellites in LEO, GEO and way beyond (all the way up to Moon and Mars). Anyway, this isn’t LinkedIn and I am not supposed to bore you with my resume. The point I want to make is that satellites are not new to me.

But satellite operations kind-of is. I say ‘kind-of’ because as AOCS designer I participated in LEOP (Launch and Early Operations Phase) for many different missions. I still remember the first time I was at the LEO and GEO Mission Control Centre (MCC) in 2011. The multiple row workstations, the big screens and the overall feel of ‘talking’ to the satellite reminded me of things I’ve watched in movies like Apollo 13. As the design team, we were supposed to ensure that after launch, the satellite safely reaches it’s operational orbit. For some satellites it took days, and sometimes it took weeks, but those were some of the most fun days on the job. I honestly learnt so much from each launch campaign I was part of. I had a personal launch logbook documenting my LEOP experience and I am pretty sure that by the time I left ISRO, the count was close to 30. After a while I was fed up of the frequent trips to Hassan (a few hours away from Bangalore) but it was purely from logistical point of view as once I was inside the MCC, the ecstatic environment always lifted my spirits. After ensuring that the satellite is fine in it’s operational orbit and functionally checking that the AOCS performance is as per design we would hand over the satellite to the operational team who would then look after the routine operations for the rest of it’s life. This can be 5 years for satellites in LEO to about 20 years for those in GEO.

So yes, I should rephrase. Satellite operations isn’t new to me. Routine operations is. I have changed my domain from design to operations and am presently working on 3 Metop (Meteorological Operstional) satellites in LEO which form the EUMETSAT Polar System (EPS).

My very relevant AOCS experience has helped me a lot in the last few months. As Metop AOCS engineer I am responsible for monitoring the platform (called Service Module) performance. The terminology may be a bit different but the concepts are obviously not. Along with routine AOCS health monitoring I am also involved in overlooking special operations like orbit correction manoeuvres and redundant sensor functional checks. As deputy engineer I am also supporting other platform subsystems like Power and Thermal.

The most interesting thing I am working on is Metop-A end of life where we would deorbit the satellite next year as it completes 20 years of operations. The activities involved are undoubtedly challenging and exciting. But it is very special for me personally, as with this I can complete the satellite lifecycle and be involved with satellites from birth (concept and preliminary design) to death (deorbiting and decommissioning).

The work is new enough to keep me engaged and familiar enough to not make me feel lost. I feel so blessed that at least from January to March 2020, I could work normally and meet my wonderful team or know more about my tasks. My training was derailed a bit because of the pandemic related on-site presence restrictions but telework has been efficient as well.

In spite of the craziness that this year was all about, I am very happy that I could complete my on-call certification a few months ago. Being on-call is also something very new to me. Every week one engineer from my team is on-call and during this time you can be contacted by the controller 24×7 for any anomalies on the spacecraft. Some are frequent and can be solved on phone by talking through it with the controller. For others you may be required to go to the MCC in the middle of the night and send some commands to the spacecraft to resolve the anomaly. You are paid extra in addition to the normal 40 hour work week which was a surprise for me as at ISRO we were not compensated for overtime, never in money and sometimes not even in time which was very unfair!

In the end of November I had my very first on-call week. Knowing I could be called at any random time, I never let my work phone out of sight and it was with me everywhere. Even while sleeping I used to keep it on full ringer volume right next to my head and my poor personal phone was uncharged and neglected through the entire week. The first night I was not able to sleep for a few hours after lying down because I couldn’t take my mind off of Metop. But then it got normal gradually and it was fairly quiet from Monday to Saturday. And then on the last day (Sunday night) I got a call out at 3 am because of an instrument anomaly. One of the scientific payload instruments started giving out crazy data and the controller called me, the on-call SOE, as guided by the contingency procedure. I tried my best to understand what the controller was telling me. I had to ensure that I don’t panic and also calm him down. The 10 minute pass (spacecraft visibility) was already over when I got the call so we could not send any command to the spacecraft. After the call I was wide awake and the fact that it was past 3 am was hardly evident. I even unintentionally woke Govind up as I was excitedly searching through the documentation for the recovery procedure in my laptop. With LEO satellites the plus point is you have 100 minutes to figure out the anomaly, decide what you have to or want to do in the next pass and then explain it to the controller. This was a recurrent anomaly cased by an SEU (Single Event Upset) that could be recovered by resetting that particular instrument, so lucky for me I did not have to go to EUMETSAT to fix it. The minus point is that even if it’s a minor thing and you know what to do, you have to wait for 100 minutes. I obviously couldn’t sleep and was up till the next pass. And probably another hour after that checking up that the recovery procedure sent by the controller worked fine and then mailing the team about the anomaly. As on-call engineer you aren’t really required to know each and every procedure for each and every anomaly on each and every subsystem of the spacecraft. But what’s expected of you is to ensure as best as you can that the spacecraft as a whole and the concerned instrument is out of immediate danger. The spacecraft anomalies may also cause an outage of data which is used to generate weather products by meteorological departments around the world so it needs to be reported to the users. The cause of the anomaly is also later analysed but that is followed up by the concerned instrument engineer from our team and is not the job of the on-call SOE. With this exciting anomaly my first on-call week became a bit happening.

My next on-call week was the week of Christmas and it was very quiet and uneventful (Thanks dear Metops!).

So work wise 2020 was all about newness. 2021 is also going to be very exciting because of Metop-A End-of-Life and I am really looking forward to ticking that box from my spacecraft lifecycle checklist.

To 2021 and more newness, because change is the only constant! 🙂

2 thoughts on “Life in my new orbit!”

  1. Hey Smiti , how did you come about to being a space engineer ? How did that work out ? I understand your brother is also in space engineering isn’t it ?
    I am a fellow bal bhartian and had seen a post abt your brother and kind of ended up following your insta . Didn’t know you have this blog running ?

    Like

    1. Hi Mansi, yes my brother is an aerospace engineer. In fact we have a running joke that we should start our own company as my husband is also an aerospace engineer. 😅
      Career wise I never shyed away from taking chances. And I have that constant thirst of ‘what next’ to thank for this fulfilling career in space. After B. Tech in Aerospace Engineering I worked for a few months in aeronautical manufacturing and then joined an aeronautical masters fellowship at NAL Bangalore, which I discontinued after a year as I got selected for scientist/engineer post at ISRO. I worked there for 8 years on many different types of satellites and had an absolutely wonderful growth curve. In 2020 I moved to Germany for family reunification and fortunately got a great space job here too. I’ve had this blog running for a few years but I am barely as active as I’d want to be. I enjoy writing but more often than not am unsure about things to write about. So I end up penning down random topics like travel, life, space, fiinance etc. 😊 What are you up to?

      Like

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