The Spanish observation satellite Ingenio is spending its last hours on Earth. It is folded up and hermetically sealed at the top of the European launcher Vega number 17, next to the small French scientific platform Taranis that will accompany it into space from French Guiana.
The first satellite dedicated to observation missions that is in the State Heritage, its government missions will be decided by the Executive of President Pedro Sánchez. But for the time being it is cooled and connected by a robust wiring system several kilometres long to the Jupiter Control Centre, on whose large screens all the indicators are lit up in green.
The nerve centre of the Kurú space base, the main room of the Jupiter Centre is home to the Spanish and French technicians who supervise the parameters of the two spacecraft and the Vega rocket 24 hours a day, waiting for the moment of take-off.
The Jupiter Centre will be filled with specialist staff and will be activated 9 hours and 10 minutes before 02:52 am on 17 November, Spanish mainland time (early Monday to Tuesday). This is when the countdown begins, which should end with the ignition of the engines of the first stage of the Vega rocket and its departure into space.
Five hours and 38 minutes before that time, the flight director will activate the safety protocol in the entire space base, nearby towns, and in the air and sea space, to protect people in case of an accident. 33 minutes later the flight program will be loaded into the Vega rocket computer and four hours later the automatic sequence for take-off will be initiated.
A hot-air balloon will be released ten minutes before H-hour. Its instruments will provide the final weather reports on the area, data that will confirm the take-off or advise its momentary suspension due to rain or strong winds in the upper layers of the atmosphere. "But the forecasts are good. It's a good time in Guyana for launches," confirmed Ingenio's father, Oriol Álvarez, who is responsible for manufacturing the satellite at the Barajas plant (Madrid) of Airbus Space Systems España, in a telephone conversation from Kurú.
Since Vega is on the launch ramp, "both Ingenio and Taranis are fully controlled inside the Vega rocket" says Oriol Álvarez, who follows the launch operations from the space base. "We continuously send commands to Ingenio and it sends back signals confirming that all its equipment is in good health".
Barring any last-minute incidents, the launch will take place at 22:52 hours on November 16th in French Guyana. If the flight proceeds as planned, the first, second and third booster stages will be detached from the Vega rocket two, four and seven minutes after take-off, respectively, when the solid propellant in each stage has been exhausted.
The fourth and final stage of the Vega rocket - which will be switched on and off twice - will continue its ascent until it reaches an altitude of 670 kilometres, 55 minutes after leaving the Earth. It is then that an ejection system manufactured by Airbus Space Systems España will release Ingenio and deposit it in space. The second traveller, the Frenchman Taranis, will be placed in orbit 48 minutes later and in nine minutes the mission will be completed.
Once alone in space, Ingenio has to prove that it has not been damaged during the flight and that it is alive. This happens "automatically and will switch on its transmitter and send a signal to the deep space antenna that ESA has in New Norcia, Australia)," explains Oriol Álvarez, confirmation that will be relayed to the Control Centre in Kurú.
The Spanish satellite will then automatically begin to slowly deploy its three solar panels to generate electricity. Once fully open, its small attitude control motors will move Ingenio to a position facing the sun, so that it can charge the batteries with which its electronic equipment works.
About 15 minutes later, Ingenio is scheduled to pass by the vertical of ESA's monitoring station in Troll (Norway), in the middle of the Arctic continent. The telemetry sent by the satellite will reach its 7.3 metre antenna and it will be checked whether it has deployed its solar panels correctly and is at the right height.
At that time, the first tasks to verify the satellite's status will begin. Called the LEOP phase, they will be carried out from ESA's European Space Operations Centre in Darmstadt (Germany). However, in ten days' time, the satellite's tracking will be transferred to the Instituto Nacional de Técnica Aeroespacial (INTA) in Torrejón (Madrid), which will also assume effective control of the satellite.
The take-off has already received all the blessings. On 14 November, "for six hours the general launch test was successfully carried out in accordance with all the regulated procedures", corroborated Oriol Álvarez. This test gave way the day after the meeting of the Committee formed by the top executives of the companies and organisations involved in the space mission, who proceeded to the Launch Readiness Review, the document that authorises take-off.
Arianespace, the company in charge of launch operations, the European Space Agency (ESA) as mission manager, the Italian company Avio as manager of the Vega launcher, the French Space Agency as owner of the Kurú base and owner of the Taranis satellite are represented in the Committee. On the Spanish side, delegates from Airbus Space Systems España, the satellite's manufacturer, and a manager from the Centro para Desarrollo Tecnológico Industrial (CDTI), an institution of the Ministry of Science and Innovation that owns Ingenio, were present.
Those attending the meeting checked the documentation that records all the work carried out during the launch campaign, which began with the arrival of the two satellites in Guyana on 24 September. They confirmed that the two satellites were suitable for orbiting, that the preparation of the Vega launcher had been correct, that the work of integrating the satellites into the rocket had followed the predetermined steps and that the work on the launch ramp had been completed successfully. All that remains is to wait for D-day and H-hour.