Airbus Defence and Space

Getting satellites off the ground: what happens during a launch campaign

After all the time and effort that goes into designing and building a satellite, it is clearly crucial that the final stages of its Earthly sojourn, the preparations for that all-important launch, are attended to with meticulous care. Airbus Defence and Space asked Eric Perrot, a veteran of several satellite launch campaigns, to tell us about what is involved, both for the satellite and the personnel.


You have been involved in six telecommunications satellite launch campaigns, four of these in the role of Assembly, Integration and Test Manager. What are the stages of a campaign?

A satellite launch campaign comprises three main phases: spacecraft preparation activities (essentially setting-up in the facilities, reception of the satellite and thorough health check test of all subsystems following transportation), spacecraft fuelling activities and finally the ‘combined operations’ of installing the satellite in the launch carrier, and preparing the satellite including battery charging and setting the satellite in flight configuration for lift off.

The W3A satellite launch campaign team, Baikonur, 2004. Eric Perrot is ninth from left, back row.

The W3A satellite launch campaign team, Baikonur, 2004. Eric Perrot is ninth from left, back row.

The whole process typically takes around 35 days for a telecommunications satellite campaign; Earth observation and science satellite campaigns can take longer – between two and three months – as the satellite is often split in two parts, and therefore final integration on the launch pad is of a longer duration than for a telecommunications satellite. The whole campaign team comes to the launch site; there are no permanent in-situ Airbus Defence and Space personnel. We are around 35 people at the start of a campaign, and about 20 by the end – and I don’t mean that half of us fall by the wayside, but rather that the make-up of the team changes as the different activities ensue!

What do these phases entail?

Hot Bird 8 arriving in Baikonur in 2006.Propellants are delivered two weeks prior to the start of the launch campaign, and stored in the dedicated storage areas for temperature stabilisation. This ensures that spacecraft launch site activities are not affected by this hazardous activity.

An ‘early team’ usually arrives five days before satellite. All facilities must be thoroughly checked and validated, including power supply, crane hoist capacity, clearance and operator training, air conditioning (cleanliness to Class 100,000, relative humidity at 45-60%, temperature at 22°C ±3°C). We also need to make sure that we have stocks of everything that may be needed during the campaign, such as protective clothing, flame retardant and anti-static equipment, consumables (de-ionised water etc), and that all escape routes are known and clear.

The first part of the spacecraft preparation phase proper is network installation ahead of the arrival of the satellite and the main team – setting up the local network, PCs and server, VSAT communication system or ADSL link, as appropriate.

Then the spacecraft arrives, flown in on a transporter aircraft like the Antonov. The containers are unloaded in an airlock and cleaned, the spacecraft is unpacked, visually inspected for any shipping damage, and transferred to the cleanroom. In parallel the electrical ground support equipment (EGSE) is unpacked and installed.

A ‘fit-check’ of the spacecraft and the launcher payload adaptor is performed, if this procedure has not already taken place before the satellite was shipped to the launch site. All these operations are done during the first day so that the satellite can be switched on in the cleanroom 24 hours after its arrival.

The spacecraft, now interfaced with the checkout equipment, then undergoes a rigorous ‘health check’ in which all subsystems are verified. In addition, during this phase, the batteries are stabilised and charged, the arm plugs – not yet installed on the spacecraft – are prepared and verified off-line; the tank pyrotechnic isolation valves are fired off-line as well. Once the health-check OK is given (and all non-flight items such as test leads have been removed!), the spacecraft structure is sealed for flight.

Hot Bird 8 is turned on its side for encapsulation in the Proton launcher fairing.

Hot Bird 8 is turned on its side for encapsulation in the Proton launcher fairing.

Tank pressurisation to flight level is performed remote from the spacecraft, during pre-arranged ‘out of normal working hour’ time slots to minimise disruption to parallel spacecraft AIT activities.

Phase two, spacecraft fuelling and arming, takes around 10 days. All hazardous operations are carried out in the dedicated cleanrooms. First the spacecraft is weighed to determine its ‘dry mass’. The oxidiser and the fuel are loaded into the spacecraft in two separate operations, each of which take two days. After loading, the spacecraft’s ‘wet mass’ weight is taken. An internal countdown rehearsal may be performed, in order to calibrate the duration of countdown tasks, and if necessary de-bug the countdown procedure and ground software. There is a final battery charge, and the pyrotechnic devices are verified and armed in flight configuration.

Phases 1 and 2, spacecraft preparation and spacecraft fuelling, are carried out under the responsibility of the Airbus Defence and Space team. The third and final phase, ‘combined operations’, where the satellite and the launcher preparation campaigns converge, is ultimately under the responsibility of the launcher personnel. Our part principally involves the encapsulation of the satellite and payload adaptor in the launcher fairing. Once the connection between the payload adaptor and the launcher is complete, an end-to-end checkout is performed.

A couple of days before the scheduled launch date, a final countdown rehearsal is held, involving all the launch facilities (launcher and associated facilities, ground tracking network, spacecraft check out equipment) and carried out in parallel with the launch vehicle flight simulation tests. At ‘D-1’, the final vehicle checkout and preparation for countdown is completed. The final countdown starts 12 to 20 hours before the launch time. During this period, the spacecraft activities are charging the batteries and status monitoring. Then the launch sequence is initiated, requiring the spacecraft switch-on to launch mode with continuous monitoring of the spacecraft configuration and lastly, the switching to internal power.

We have lift-off – and a much-deserved glass of champagne!

What about the personal aspects? What does it ‘feel like’ to take part in a launch campaign?

Each campaign is different. It’s an adventure in which everybody is thoroughly involved. It’s the end of a contract commitment; it’s when you really see the concrete results of so many months of intense effort; it’s seeing the satellite take off to start its mission. Everybody gives 100% and more, and even though you have to put in lots of man-hours, it’s OK, because for the duration of the campaign, we don’t have all the usual routine pressures on us like having to get the kids to school, rushing round the shops, and so on. Since we are freed up from all of that, it’s easy to be totally concentrated on the job in hand.

Tandem-X: Operator at the hydrazine transport tankSometimes things are pretty tense. I remember the W1 campaign, for example, where we had to work flat out for three weeks non-stop, seven days a week – integrating all the thrusters, changing equipment, configuring the satellite, all in time for mating with the launcher. Sometimes there are last-minute hitches which can cause the delay or even the cancellation of the launch; you have to act fast to make emergency repairs but you can’t let the fact that you’re working against the clock compromise the quality and thus the success of the operation. People’s commitment is hugely impressive.

‘Pulling together’ is also terribly important. When we are working on a launch campaign, everybody helps everybody else; there are no barriers between ‘my job’ and ‘your job’ – everything is ‘our job’. I think that what we all feel, first and foremost, about being part of a satellite launch campaign team is a sense of pride; it’s a great honour to be able to say “I was there – I helped to make that happen.”

There’s a great team spirit, and all of us come back with a whole stack of memories and our own anecdotes. Some of mine are Hot Bird 2 in 1996 when we only had one CD which we played endlessly throughout the entire campaign (it’s still running through my head 12 years later!), or the whole team (15 to 20 of us) raising a glass in the jacuzzi at Cape Canaveral after the successful launch of Hot Bird 5 in 1998. Basically, just the being together after the launch, proud of what we’ve accomplished over the previous few months.

Aerial view of the town of Kourou with the Hôtel des Roches in the foreground.

Aerial view of the town of Kourou with the Hôtel des Roches in the foreground.

You’ve been involved in launch campaigns at Kourou, Baikonur and Cape Canaveral. Presumably, very different experiences?

The Baikonur site in winter.The working conditions, be they in French Guiana, Kazakhstan or the US, are pretty much on a par. However, the living conditions at the various launch sites are different, and different in different seasons. At Kourou and in Florida, we are lodged in a hotel, or with local residents, so we are quite independent. Baikonur is a military base, which means that the regulations governing our movements are much stricter: moreover, the site has a radius of only 500 metres, and the nearest town is 80 km away, so we are largely confined to quarters. Being in Florida or French Guiana in the winter is really very pleasant; and outside of working hours you can get out and see a bit of the surroundings. Baikonur in the winter, when temperatures can reach -20°C, is quite another kettle of (frozen) fish!

But it’s all part of doing one of the best jobs in the world!

Earth ObservationTandem-X