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Interview with Nicolaus Hanowski, Head Ground Segments and Operations under ESA's Earth Observation Programmes Directorate

Nicolaus, you took charge of the EO mission and Ground Segment activities in ESA last March, what are your impressions 10 months into the post?

Coming from ESA’s mandatory Science Programme the most notable difference is the high level of coordination and reflection with our Member States and other stakeholders on all activities. One of my former responsibilities was the development of the Rosetta Science Ground Segment, which constituted a significant operational and technological challenge. Now, the development and implementation of new EO Ground Segments and their operations, e.g. for the Copernicus Sentinel satellites means transcending deeply into the realm of Big Data and Information Technology, which are revolutionising Earth Observation. Everybody is mesmerized by the great prospects.

Could you briefly explain your daily activities? What exactly is the role of your team?

Most activities revolve around organising the typical Ground Segment functions, such as instrument planning, tasking & calibration, data reception, processing, distribution and archiving. But the way we do these things is constantly evolving. The teams, jointly with our partners, always assure robust and efficient mission operations while simultaneously defining new Ground Segment architectures for future missions. In particular, our Earth Explorer missions keep us continuously on the watch to utilize new technologies and to generate new spectacular science. This requires a high level of dedication and ingenuity from our mission managers and operations experts. On a different level and in order to meet our obligations within the ESA Earth Observation programme we are continuously considering aspects, such as the involvement of the new Member States and how to leverage ESA geo-return aspects.


The big challenge for ESA at the moment is to be ready for the large volume of data, which will soon be flowing from the Sentinel satellites, how are you preparing for this? How ready do you think you are?

We have just recently expanded our data network to its full scale and we are gradually increasing the load on the system to serve a large variety of user profiles. At the same time we keep the system flexible enough for future expansion. The most visible expression of our steadily increasing capacity is the Sentinel-1 data hub, which already enables the access to thousands of new data products every week to all users in addition to providing data to the six Copernicus Services. Our ambition is not only to fulfil but to exceed the obligations as stipulated in our agreement with the European Union who owns the system and the data.

Sentinel-3A antenna covered.Copyright ESA–Anneke Le Floc’h. More info

We are now nearly 9 months into the first Sentinel mission, how would you evaluate the operation of Sentinel-1 so far?

We had a very successful Launch and Early Orbit and Commissioning phase during which the overall system, including the Space and Ground Segment, demonstrated full compliance to the design requirements and excellent performance. During this phase we were even able to provide early demonstrations of the operational capability, for example, by responding quickly to calls for disaster management support. Nevertheless, the commissioning was also characterized by numerous challenges: certainly the most prominent was the achievement of the nominal orbit from a lower then expected injection orbit. This required some extra planning effort by the various operations teams and the final orbit was reached in early August this year. The commissioning was declared officially completed on the 23rd of September. Since the beginning of October we are operational, with data access open to all users. The overall Copernicus Space Component is now in its ramp-up phase with the key aim to gradually include the subsequent Sentinels (e.g. Sentinel 2 now scheduled to be launched in May 2015).

What challenges will the ESA team have to deal with the new instruments in terms of data processing and distribution?

Our Ground Segments are typically comprised of highly distributed functional components all of which need to be orchestrated. Scaling and introducing new schemes of data access is clearly one of the key challenges. In addition, the Sentinel missions adopt a new and innovative operations concept based on pre-defined background observation plans, so called ‘carpet mapping’. All data acquired on-board is downlinked to our core receiving stations and systematically processed to generate a set of core products. These are quality checked, archived and disseminated to the users, all within 3 to 24 hours from on-board sensing.

Some Member States will share the task of archiving the data, can you explain how this is co-ordinated e.g. on a geographic and thematic basis?

Besides the Copernicus Space Component Ground Segment, funded by the EU and managed by ESA, the operations concept foresees the deployment of Sentinels Collaborative Ground Segments across Europe. These are initiatives, funded by Member States, whose main objective is to provide supplementary access to Sentinel data as well as to generate additional higher-level products.

The areas of collaboration go well beyond archiving the data and include:

  • Sentinels data acquisition and quasi real time production
  • Complementary collaborative data products and algorithms definition
  • Sentinels core product dissemination and access
  • Development of innovative tools and applications
  • Complementary external validation support activities

The collaboration framework foresees bilateral agreements between ESA and its Member States. So far four such agreements have already been signed, with Greece, Norway, Italy and Germany. Several other agreements are currently being finalised and will be put in place in early 2015. Coordination is carried out in many different ways e.g. through the various Collaborative Ground Segment agreements or by providing engineering support to the Member States for the definition and implementation. In addition, ESA organizes regular workshops twice a year gathering all partners and allowing coordination of the various initiatives.

By the way, the future use of EDRS will also have a strong potential to increase the impact of many of these activities.

We understand that there will be a “rolling archive” for Sentinel data, can you expand on what this means for the users and maybe describe the policy, which will determine the archive?

As concerns access to Sentinel data, ESA has deployed specific data access infrastructure solutions, tailored to the needs of the various use typologies. In principle four Sentinel data hub types are available to users:

The central Copernicus Services data access, providing access to Sentinel data as well as Copernicus Contributing Missions data. This access point, referred to as Coordinated Data System (CDS), is operational since 2008 and accessible online. Secondly, the open (‘Science and Other Use’) data access hub is also providing access to the Sentinel products. To ensure good performance for all users, the data access is configured in such a way as to avoid resource saturation. Consequently, the system is implemented as a rolling online archive, covering the last few months of acquisitions. Users can self-register without any restriction. To date more than 4000 users have already registered with approximately 200 new users registering per week. More than 50000 products have been downloaded, corresponding to more than 90TB worth of data. Finally, the Collaborative Ground Segments and International Agreements data hubs, which provide access to the Sentinels products and whose logic I have just described. The corresponding systems are also implemented with rolling online archives. In this case ESA is providing the user credentials to the Member States, and therefore no resource saturation filter is required.

The Sentinel data access infrastructure managed by ESA is in continuous evolution in order to meet the evolving users needs and to adapt to the latest technologies. In particular, ESA is working in close coordination with the European Commission with the aim to enlarge the online access to the complete Sentinel long term data archive for all users. Considering the large data volumes involved, this transformation of the rolling archives will require the adoption of innovative concepts and tools including those of cloud-based exploitation platforms and hosted processing. ESA has gained considerable experience in these concepts through its Ground Segment R&D programme, and most recently through the Thematic Exploitation Platform initiative.

Iceberg on Sentinel-1A’s radar.Copyright Copernicus data (2014)/ESA/e-GEOS. More info

Ground Segment & Registration

ESA distributes data from ESA EO Missions, ESA Campaigns, the Sentinels, Copernicus Contributing Missions and Third Party Missions (TPMs)- what are the main differences between the distribution of these different types of data?

ESA strives to adopt a similar data access strategy across all mission types. In particular, over the past couple of years activities have focused on ensuring all data holdings are easily accessible online by all users. We have also made major improvements in the user registration process with the introduction of Single Sign On and specific work is being done in the area of Federated User Management. Obviously our systems need to be able to handle the specificities of each mission, in particular as concerns data policy and licensing from non-ESA missions. This is the case for Third Party and Copernicus Contributing Missions. On the other hand we will continue strive to make data access ever more transparent in terms of the data sources. Ideally, the user would not even have to consider where the data is coming from.

How will 3rd party users i.e. those not part of the supply chain for Copernicus services access the data from Copernicus?

Any user can access Sentinel data from at least one of the various data hubs deployed by ESA. In particular, any user can self register in the Open Access data hub by logging into The process of registration is straightforward and is not subject to an explicit approval by ESA.

Will you track who is accessing what data and from where? Will there be means in place to balance the data flow from the different nodes?

Our data access system includes specific monitoring functionality, which allows to monitor the access to the data for reporting as well as troubleshooting purposes. In addition our data access enhancement plan already foresees deployment of a federated network of data hub relays, allowing to balance the data traffic depending on the user requests.

What role will the mirror sites play in the data supply? Can a user in country X gain access to data covering country Y from a site or node in Country Z?

The role of mirror sites and the access options depends on the specific layout and purpose foreseen by a Member State e.g. in the case of Collaborative Ground Segment mirror site. We are seeing an impressive spectrum of potential mirror site scenarios evolving vastly expanding the accessibility and usability of the data by commercial and scientific users.

Sentinel-1 maps Fogo eruption. Copernicus data (2014)/ESA/Norut-PPO.labs–COMET-SEOM InSARap study. More info

Will all users (and thinking particularly of European companies compared to those users outside of Europe) have the same level of data access?

With the establishment of the Open (‘Science and Other Use’) access we have generated a level playing field for all users. The Collaborative Ground Segment accesses will provide a spectrum of additional and appealing options for European companies. As explained before we are constantly in contact with the European Commission to prepare the most effective and practical next evolutionary steps for the Open access.

How can users place requests for data where satellite acquisition programming is required? Will all users have the same level of priority?

It is important to keep in mind that with ‘carpet mapping’ missions the concept of acquisition programming takes a very secondary role. For example, Sentinel-2 will systematically acquire all land masses within a certain latitude range as part of its observation planning scenario. The priority on what remains of the concept revolves largely around the Copernicus Services with some exceptions, which are handled as part of the Mission Management.

EO Distribution

What is the level of access to Sentinel 1 data? If a company wishes to download a large amount of data for a specific application, will that be possible? Which limits are established for downloading?

All this information is available but also continuously evolving – therefore, for the current status, I would like to refer you to:

Information & Communication Technology

Many European players are now offering services in cloud computing and management of “big data”.(e.g. ATOS, T- Systems, CloudSigma, Interoute etc) but how is ESA evaluating that large non-European information management companies (e.g. Google, Microsoft, Amazon) are also taking an active interest in Europe and EO?

We are convinced that European companies are positioning themselves quite consciously and skillfully to become also players in this context. In this sense we see the big US information companies as an inspiration and challenge for a potentially wide range of European initiatives rather than a monolithic European response. Our role is to make sure that the EO data are available for these initiatives and to provide technological know-how in terms of what we have learned over 30 years in view of facilitating EO data exploitation. After finalising the EU-ESA Copernicus Agreement we can now put even more emphasis on iterating potential next steps for optimising our support for such initiatives jointly with the European Commission.

The gold standard for EDRS.Copyright Airbus Defence and Space SAS 2014. More info

The thematic exploitation platforms (TEPs) provide a complete work environment for their users performing data-intensive research by running dedicated processing software close to the data. How have those platforms been evaluated for potential users?

The entities for the implementation of the TEPs have been selected and will provide a range of new approaches to push the concept forward. A key criterion in the evaluation was the user perspective with which we are traditionally quite familiar by having served these thematic communities in the past. I would like to stress that this type of exploitation platform is only one, although a potent one, of several ways to organise such platforms. Within ESA but also in our Member States there is an entire eco-system of different exploitation platform initiatives evolving, some through stimulus projects, some by the expansion of well-established exploitation systems.

What is your opinion around the Data Innovation and Science Centres (DISCs) bringing together scientists and service providers? Will they carry out functions related to processing algorithm evolution/maintenance, as well as instrument calibration / product validation / routine quality control?

It is still too early to pick one specific concept, such as the DISC concept, which we are currently discussing with our Members States, to have a final opinion about them. We are using these concepts to trigger discussions and to provide incentives for envisioning new scenarios. In this sense the concept of the DISCs has been already very useful.


In the next few years, how do you see the activities of your department changing?

This is a very dynamic environment, which will require flexibility and adaptation regarding many of our tasks. The increasing fusion of the classical engineering of Ground Segments with activities and skills coming straight out of the information service sector will be one such change. A renewed focus on key competences concerning the data content, data integrity and data cross-discipline utilisation potential is another example. Finally, changes will derive from the new ESA EO Strategy and EO Science Strategy.

At the end of the interview, here is the opportunity for your final thoughts on how your activities could contribute to the future development of the EO geo-information service sector.

One of the keys for pro-actively and successfully contributing to this sector is generating a common frame o reference, not the least, for facilitating communication about this highly complex subject. There is a huge range of diverse experiences and interpretations about possible future scenarios. I hope that, together with our Member States, we can help to identify and work along common concepts and approaches toward success in terms of broadening the user base and maximising user satisfaction.


More information about his biography at the following link