All space missions are subject to unforeseen events, which is why the human teams that control them go through simulations in which everything that can go wrong tends to get worse. A process that lived Ignacio Tanco, Juice’s operations manager before its takeoff for Jupiter.
Although the team knows they are simulations, the “stress experienced is very high” because “they put us under considerable pressure” and in none “you manage to feel really comfortable”, but they are “very valuable” to improve, the Basque engineer told EFE.
Several months to overcome twenty simulations in which they never lost the Juice probe (at the time of this interview there were still two left). “We never got to that point, although several times we got into quite narrow alleys, but we always managed to get out.”
Tanco, born in Urnieta (Gipuzcoa), joined the European Space Agency (ESA) in 2001 as an operations engineer, where he worked on missions such as Rosetta, Solar Orbiter or BepiColombo.
Now how Juice Mission Operations Manager, what on the 13th it will take off from the European port in French Guiana, He heads the group of engineers who command and carry out the operations for the probe to reach Jupiter in a journey of almost eight years.
Juice (Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer) will visit one of the “most mysterious and important” places in the solar system, the gas giant Jupiter and three of its icy moons: Callisto, Europa and, above all, Ganymede, he explains.
The simulation campaign reproduces the possible problems to have the team trained “even in the face of the most extreme failures”, from ship operation to external threats such as solar radiation and debris, to human issues such as team cohesion.
Exercises are conducted in control room of the European Space Operations Center that ESA has in Darmstadt (Germany) and Juice is taken care of by two teams, the Red one, led by Tanco, and the Blue one, which between them cover 24 hours a day.
During the simulation days “it is not that one failure happens, but many”. There are hundreds of scenarios, he says, from a solar panel not being deployed to the onboard computer not realizing it has separated from the rocket or the propulsion systems not working.
At the end of one of these days “you end up as if you had spent the day at the gym doing your best, you suffer at the time, but you leave saying: I’m glad I did it”.
Tanco recognizes that the best simulations are the ones where you see you got something wrong, because “that’s where you learn the most”sometimes you find that “you do something that makes a bad situation worse”.
This happened to the team recently. They were convinced what the bug was and how to fix it, only to find out they were dead wrong. “We had to completely modify the diagnosis and the way of responding. It was very valuable.”
As the team battles the clock, one floor below is a small, windowless room, “the Simulation Bunker”, where you have full control of Juice’s virtual alter ego and see and hear everything that happens in the main room.
O simulation officers (two in the case of this mission) “they know where we are at all times so that failures arrive at the most inopportune moment”.
Sometimes they send someone out of the room, maybe they felt sick or didn’t come to work that day because of an accident.
“Everyone looks like a chessboard”, but that’s how you find out if there are holes in training, because “if one person is missing there must be another who knows how to do more or less the same”.
Tanco laughs when asked if the simulation team are the evil masterminds. In fact, they are “very close people”, with whom they see each other almost daily and participate in all meetings.
“Their job is to train us and they need to know where the weak points are”, says the operations manager. “They look at us almost like a coach looks at an athlete and asks: what do I have to do to improve?”
The simulation campaign depends on each mission and covers the critical phases. In this case, it replicates the approximately 36 hours of the first operations in orbit, starting when Juice separates from the rocket, 27 minutes and 45 seconds after launch.
The probe must, among other things, activate the onboard computer, deploy the solar panels to survive and communicate with the ground to receive commands and send telemetry data.
The worst case scenario is that the computer does not wake up after separation, “Under these conditions, it is consuming the batteries and, if you don’t do anything, the satellite dies and the mission is lost.”
The team faced this “particularly complex scenario, because you have to do a lot of critical actions blindly, but we managed to solve it and we left very happy”.