A history of Europe’s centre of excellence for satellite operations
ESOC is home to the engineering teams that control spacecraft in orbit, manage our global tracking station network, and design and build the systems on the ground that support missions in space.
Located in Darmstadt, Germany, ESOC has served as Europe’s ‘gateway to space’ for over half a century.
Over the years, operators at ESOC have flown over 80 spacecraft, ranging from communication, weather, Earth observation and climate monitoring satellites to spacecraft studying the Sun or peering deep into the Universe. They include the Sentinels, a fleet of spacecraft flown by ESA as part of Europe’s Copernicus programme – the world’s most ambitions Earth observation programme.
ESOC has flown missions to the Moon, Venus, Mars and beyond, with three particularly epoch-making triumphs: Giotto’s flyby of Halley’s Comet in 1986, the Huygens landing on Titan in 2005 and Rosetta’s delivery of Philae to comet 67P/Churyumov–Gerasimenko in 2014 – humankind’s first-ever landing on a comet.
Explore the slider below to see some highlights from the centre’s beginnings in 1967, the pioneering spirit of the early decades, the steady growth of mission operations expertise in Darmstadt, developments at the centre and milestones in European spaceflight and ESOC’s evolving economic importance.
As we look to the future, a dozen new missions are now in active planning, with many others under study.
8 SEPTEMBER 1967
The European Space Operations Centre (ESOC) was inaugurated by Minister of Research of the Federal Republic of Germany, Gerhard Stoltenberg, in a new building at Robert-Bosch-Straße 5, Darmstadt, with 95 employees. Stig Comet, Director of ESOC’s predecessor, the European Space Data Centre (ESDAC), takes over as first Director at ESOC.
17 MAY 1968
Launch of ESRO-2B (IRIS 2), the first satellite controlled from ESOC, by a Scout-B rocket from Space Launch Complex 5 (SLC-5) at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, USA. Routine control for three years.
A decade of firsts
15 APRIL 1975
The European Space Conference of April 1975 approved the terms of the final draft of the ESA Convention, merging ELDO (European Launcher Development Organisation) and ESRO (European Space Research Organisation). The Convention was signed by member states Belgium, Denmark, France, Germany (Federal Republic), Italy, the Netherlands, Spain, Sweden, Switzerland and the United Kingdom at the Conference of Plenipotentiaries, in Paris, on 30 May 1975, today celebrated as the birthday of ESA.
14 SEPTEMBER 1976
FIRST ESA GROUND STATION
One of the outcomes of the ESRO council held on 23-24 November 1972 was that the ground station for geostationary satellite control would be located in Michelstadt, in the Odenwald near ESOC. Building construction started in 1974 so that it would be ready for equipment installation at the beginning of 1975.
9 AUGUST 1975
COS-B was launched by a Thor-Delta from the Western Test Range, USA, and the first mission for the newly created ESA. It studied gamma-ray sources, and was also the first to be dedicated to a single experiment
24 DECEMBER 1979
FIRST LAUNCH OF ARIANE 1
The first-ever launch of a rocket from ESA’s Ariane programme successfully delivered Technological Capsule 1 (CAT-1) into its planned eight-orbit mission to return data on launch characteristics of the new rocket. As the size of satellites grew, Ariane 1 gave way to the more powerful version 2, 3, and 4. Today’s Ariane 5 is a highly reliable heavy-lift rocket able to place single or multiple payloads in any orbit. ESA extends this by offering more versatility and flexibility with its future Ariane 6.
Image credit: CNES/ESA
Pushing the boundaries
19 MAY 1981
FIRST FLIGHT DYNAMICS SYMPOSIUM
ESOC invited the world to Darmstadt to share lessons on spacecraft guidance, navigation, and control.
14 MARCH 1986
GIOTTO ENCOUNTERS HALLEY'S COMET
Making encounters with comets Halley and Grigg–Skjellerup, Giotto was ESA’s first deep-space mission. It imaged a comet nucleus for the first time and found the first evidence of organic material on a comet. The mission, flown by ESOC, was a resounding success.
9 AUGUST 1989
Launched on a mission to measure the positions, distances, motions, brightness and colours of stars, Hipparcos' apogee boost motor failed. It was injected into a highly eccentric orbit instead of the intended geostationary orbit, but thanks to the flight control team at ESOC, the mission was later recovered.
Astronomy, comets and space debris
5 APRIL 1993
FIRST EUROPEAN CONFERENCE ON SPACE DEBRIS
ESA's 1993 space debris video was produced by the Space Debris Office at ESOC for the first European Conference on Space debris. A second conference was held in 1996.
15 OCTOBER 1997
NASA/ESA/ASI Cassini-Huygens launches on a Titan IV-B/Centaur from Cape Canaveral, Florida. The mission will explore the Saturn system, and deliver ESA's Huygens lander onto the moon Titan. Operated by ESOC, Huygens is a fully automatic laboratory fitted with scientific instruments that will probe Titan's atmosphere during descent via a parachute, and its surface upon landing. It will touch down on Titan in January 2005, making the most distant landing of any spacecraft in history. Cassini continued to explore Saturn until 2017.
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech
10 DECEMBER 1999
XMM NEWTON LAUNCH
XMM-Newton, at the time the world's most powerful X-ray telescope, is launched from Kourou, French Guiana, by an Ariane 5 launcher. The observatory is the flagship of European X-ray astronomy. XMM observes objects such as neutron stars, black holes and active galaxies. Hundreds of scientific papers are published annually using data provided by the mission.
Into deep space
28 AUGUST 2002
ESA DEVELOPS MISSION CONTROL SOFTWARE
SCOS-2000, the ESA-developed generic mission control system software, marked its operational debut for the launch and LEOP of MSG-1. Originally developed to support ESA missions, the software is now being promoted as a product and licenses are granted in the fields of space research and technology.
5 MARCH 2003
ESA'S FIRST DEEP-SPACE GROUND STATION
ESA's first deep-space ground station for interplanetary and distant orbit spacecraft missions, the 35-m station at New Norcia in Western Australia, was inaugurated on 5 March 2003. A second 35-m antenna in Cebreros, Spain, was inaugurated on 28 September 2005 and a third at Malargüe, Argentina, on 18 December 2012. The stations are remotely controlled from the Estrack Network Operations Centre in ESOC.
3 JUNE 2003
MARS EXPRESS LAUNCH
Mars Express departed Earth for Mars on 2 June 2003. The intrepid spacecraft was ESA's first interplanetary mission and solving problems during its journey and arrival at Mars were major accomplishments for teams at ESOC. Mars Express was successfully captured by Martian gravity, marking the first ever successful arrival at Mars on a space agency's first attempt. Its Beagle lander, however, was lost during landing. MEX continues to be used for many scientific and operational activities today such as relaying data back to Earth from Mars landers and rovers from partner space agencies.
14 JANUARY 2005
HUYGENS LANDS ON TITAN
After its seven-year journey through the Solar System on board the Cassini-Huygens spacecraft, ESA's Huygens lander successfully descended through the atmosphere of Titan, Saturn's largest moon to land on its surface. The first scientific data arrived at ESOC at 17:19 CET. Huygens was humankind's first successful attempt to land a probe on another world in the outer Solar System. It began transmitting data to Cassini four minutes into its descent and continued to transmit data after landing.
11 APRIL 2006
VENUS EXPRESS ENTERS ORBIT
Ground controllers at ESOC confirm the end of the Venus Express main engine burn and entry into an initial, highly elliptical orbit, at 13:30 CEST. The ground team use data that the spacecraft has been sending down to Earth after the first communication link is established at 11:12 CEST to make the confirmation, marking the second arrival (after Mars Express) of ESA into orbit around another planet.
2 APRIL 2007
ESA & NASA SIGN NETWORK & OPERATION CROSS-SUPPORT AGREEMENT
The agreement covers the ongoing provision to each other of services including tracking, navigation and systems sharing use both agencies' deep-space tracking networks. Sharing such resources improves the safety and scientific return of missions for all.
Monitoring the stars and the climate
21 NOVEMBER 2011
GALILEO TAKES TO THE SKY
The first two Galileo satellites are launched, establishing the foundation for Europe's answer to the US GPS and Russian Glonass global navigation satellite services.
23 OCTOBER 2013
LAST COMMAND SENT TO PLANCK FROM ESOC
ESA's Planck space telescope was shut down after nearly 4.5 years soaking up the relic radiation from the Big Bang and studying the evolution of stars and galaxies throughout the Universe's history. Launched in 2009, Planck was designed to tease out the faintest relic radiation from the Big Bang – the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB). The CMB preserves a picture of the Universe as it was about 380 000 years after the Big Bang and provides details of the initial conditions that led to the Universe we live in today.
19 DECEMBER 2013
LAUNCH OF GAIA
Gaia is a space observatory designed for astrometry and is generating the largest, most-precise-ever 3D map of our galaxy by surveying more than a thousand million stars. ESOC teams provide full-time operations and tracking support for Gaia during its star-mapping mission.
APRIL 3, 2014
LAUNCH OF SENTINEL-1A
The first satellite of the first two-ship Sentinel-1 mission of Europe's Copernicus programme is launched on a Soyuz rocket from Europe's Spaceport in Kourou. Teams at ESOC operate Sentinel-1, -2 and -5P in their routine phase, and conduct the launch and early orbit phase (LEOP) for many of the other Sentinels. Sentinel-1 monitors many aspects of our environment, from detecting and tracking oil spills and mapping sea ice to monitoring movement in land surfaces and mapping changes in the way land is used.
6 AUGUST 2014
ROSETTA ARRIVES AT 67P
After 10 years of travel, including almost 3 in hibernation, Rosetta arrives at its destination. ESA's flight dynamics experts at ESOC played a crucial role, working behind the scenes to develop a series of ten orbit-correction manoeuvres that use Rosetta's thrusters to match the spacecraft's speed and direction with that of the comet.
12 NOVEMBER 2014
PHILAE LANDING ON COMET 67P
In an historic event, Rosetta's Philae lander touches down on the surface of Comet 67P/C-G, bouncing twice before finally settling down. Touchdown was confirmed at 16:03 GMT/17:03 CET on 12 November. The news is transmitted worldwide by hundreds of media gathered at ESOC, as well as ESA's own web and social media channels, and becomes one of the top international stories for 2014.
Image credit: ESA/ATG medialab
8 SEPTEMBER 2017
ESOC 50TH ANNIVERSARY
Five decades to the day following its inauguration on 8 September 1967, ESOC celebrated its 50th anniversary with its fourth public event: Long Night of the Stars. VIPs were joined by 5000 visitors to tour the site and control facilities and take part in what can only be described as Darmstadt's largest-ever space-themed street party.
The 2020s have already seen the launch of ESA's Solar Orbiter mission to take the closest ever images of the Sun, observe the solar wind and the Sun's polar regions like never before, and the dramatic rescue of ESA's Integral Gamma-Ray Astrophysics Laboratory satellite following a reaction wheel shutdown caused by charged particles striking it sensitive electronics.
Among many other milestones and highlights, this decade will see the arrival of the ESA-JAXA BepiColombo mission at Mercury in late 2025 and the launches of the ExoMars Rosalind Franklin Mars rover, the JUICE mission to Jupiter's icy moons, and the Artemis programme.
ESA's 2025 Agenda has established the agency's continued trajectory as a pioneer of space safety and sustainability, a leader for a green and digital Europe and a driver of the European space economy.