An electrical engineer manages mission operations at the DLR ground station in Weilheim
Erica Barkasz is an early riser; her working day starts at six in the morning in the control room of the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt; DLR) ground station at Weilheim in Upper Bavaria. A petite woman with Hungarian and Slovenian roots, who grew up in the Argentinian capital of Buenos Aires, manages mission operations here and controls communications between the antennas in Weilheim and the satellites it serves.
Idyllic and high-tech
From the air, white dots are visible against a green background. On the ground, a country road winds its way through fields in ever-tighter curves. One final bend and there it is – the smallest DLR site appears – Weilheim. At the heart of the site there are twelve highly visible, white-painted antennas of various sizes, which are operated and monitored from the control room. Around the clock, Earth observation satellites fly over the site at regular intervals and both they and geostationary telecommunications satellites transmit their signals from altitudes ranging between 200 and 36,000 kilometres in seven different frequency bands. "Two special cases are NASA's LRO Moon orbiter and ESA's Integral gamma-ray observatory, which we also look after," Erica Barkasz recounts. The lunar orbiter has been travelling around Earth's natural satellite since June 2009; the Integral spacecraft has been orbiting Earth since October 2002 on an elliptical path at an altitude that varies between 9000 and 153,000 kilometres.
Barkasz has ten minutes to 'see', track, manage and control a satellite by sending and receiving commands. Everything is teamwork – and international – the DLR ground station is integrated into a worldwide network of satellite stations. Weilheim is largely responsible for the mission operations of the current German TanDEM-X radar satellite mission. With TanDEM-X, Earth's land surface is being fully mapped in 3D and at high resolution for the first time.
"Our control room is always busy; we operate a three-shift system. The early shift begins at 06:30, the late shift at 14:30 and the night shift at 22:30," the 39-year-old explains. "If I start at six in the morning and go home at three in the afternoon, I will have spoken with colleagues from all three shifts. We can discuss questions or problems concerning the operation of the satellites directly," says the energetic manager, describing her working day. The first and last thing she does is to look at the logbook. Logbooks are used not just in shipping and aviation, but also for satellite operations.
From Argentina to Upper Bavaria
Erica Barkasz has found her dream job. The electrical engineering graduate took telecommunications as a special subject during her studies in Buenos Aires, then worked for the US company Emerging Markets Communications Inc. (EMC). During this period, she came a few times to Raisting, very close to DLR Weilheim. EMC has operated a ground station there since 2006, serving telecommunications satellites. Barkasz was enthusiastic: "I thought, this region is so beautiful I want to come and live here. I also wanted to work with satellites," she says and laughs. Weilheim was "so safe" in comparison to Buenos Aires: "Here I didn’t have to worry about going out on my own," the engineer says. She is a nature lover and keen sportswoman, and speaks fluent Spanish, English, and now, good German as well. The only problem was that she still had to find the right job. In summer 2010, she got the opportunity to work as a systems engineer at the DLR ground station. Six months later, she was able to take over as operations manager.
It's all a question of software
Her favourite activity is 'trouble-shooting' – that is, 'managing problems' concerning the control of the antennas. "We are just implementing some new software which we can use to control all the antennas. Our aim is a unified system with a consistent structure for every satellite mission we work with," the engineer explains. Although the software itself is more complex, it works more reliably and is simpler to operate.
The ground station in Weilheim is part of the German Space Operations Center in Oberpfaffenhofen; the DLR personnel in Weilheim receive their information about the satellites from there. Erica Barkasz: "We have the antennas for the transfer of telecommand data and telemetry, and send this information back to Oberpfaffenhofen."