Ireland at the heart of EU space programme

Our reporter Jess Casey speaks with Crosshaven born Kevin McMullen about his pivotal role in the most ambitious earth observation programme ever attempted.
Ireland at the heart of EU space programme

Europe’s Sentinel-5P satellite has been launched into orbit to monitor the earth’s atmosphere, including pollution levels

CORKMAN Kevin McMullen leads the European Space Agency (ESA) team currently monitoring and tracking the air we breathe via the Sentinel-5P satellite. 

Launched on October 13, the satellite is part of the ESA's Copernicus programme, the world's largest single earth observation programme to date. 

Kevin has been involved in the project from its design right through to its launch into orbit.

Born in Crosshaven, Kevin grew up in Fort Camden as his father was a sergeant in the Irish Army. 

ESA’s Sentinel-5P project manager, Kevin McMullan bidding his satellite farewell before it was shipped to Russia earlier this year.
ESA’s Sentinel-5P project manager, Kevin McMullan bidding his satellite farewell before it was shipped to Russia earlier this year.

He attended the local boys' national school and then the North Monastery, before beginning his studies in the University College Cork (UCC).  He graduated with a degree in electrical engineering in 1973.

“Four of the happiest years of my life. In those days there were only 4,000 students at the college. I watched the streaming of my niece’s graduation last week and now it's 20,000!” 

“After I graduated, I went straight to England because in those days there weren't very many opportunities in Ireland. I worked at the Plessey Radar Research centre for ten years, specialising in microwave radiometry and millimetre-wave imaging. Then the opportunity came up to join the European Space Agency in 1983 and I’ve been here ever since.” 

Kevin and his wife Elaine live in Holland where the ESA has its headquarters; the pair recently celebrated their 40th wedding anniversary.

Although Kevin now works in the epicentre of space technology, it wasn’t an area that particularly interested him growing up.  

“But I was always interested in engineering," he adds. 

"When the opportunity came in 1983, that was the first time the ESA was going to launch a radar satellite but they had no expertise in radar so they started recruiting people like myself. They needed expertise but I didn’t have any background in space. Luckily I got to work with a really experienced group of space engineers. With my knowledge, and my colleagues' knowledge, of radar and their knowledge of space technology we managed to put together a very nice satellite called ERS1, my first satellite.” 

“In the early nineties then, I worked on another satellite called ERS2. These were all remote satellite, monitoring the earth.” 

Kevin then went on to work on a satellite called MFG. “Now MFG is a Meteosat. When you see the pictures of the weather on tv each night, the clouds etc, they all came down through my payload. That was my biggest job before my current role.” 

Kevin’s team within the ESA has been responsible for the Sentinel-5P from the very beginning; from the initial design stages right up into orbit.

“The satellite is part of a huge, European-wide commission called Copernicus. This is the most ambitious earth observation programme attempted by anyone in the world.” 

“So far, we have three sentinels in orbit; sentinels one, two and three. They deal with mostly looking at land, ocean and ice. But Sentinel 5P is the first satellite to look at the atmosphere. I think this is very timely now. The objectives of this programme are to look at pollution, to look at climate change and to look at how our ozone layer is recovering. I think with Ophelia and Storm Brian, I think if anyone ever doubted it before, people must now accept that we are in for a bit more excitement in the future due to the global warming issues.” 

An instrument onboard the Sentinel 5-P measures the gases in the environmental scientists are interested in tracking, he explains.

“This satellite is the best satellite ever launched, so we can see in much more detail. At the moment, there’s only one instrument (like this) working in the world, which is getting very old and we won’t be having other such instruments for a very long time so for the next seven to 14 years this satellite will be the only satellite monitoring pollution, climate change and the ozone layer recovery, so it's very, very important.” 

Sentinel 5-P was launched successfully from Russia on Friday the 13th. 

“It was a very good launch, we used a Russian missile, from the North of Russia, because these things are very accurate, they pull in a very accurate orbit. We launched the missile and we spent just 30 hours switching on the spacecraft and turning it on. It was all very healthy. For the last week, we’ve been doing the same with the payload.”

“We’re very careful about it; we won’t be doing some measurements with it for some time. In orbit, we need the satellite to outgas. Outgas means any water etc. from the ground, we need it to boil off in orbit because on our instrument we have very cold optics. If we cool those down too early and there’s still gas in the satellite that will condense on the optics and ruin its performance. So we will now keep the instrument nice and warm, until November 7th when we start cooling down the instrument. This will take about two or three days, and from then on we’ll be able to get real measurement data.” 

Until the end of April Kevin and his team will be “commissioning”, he explains.

“Commissioning is where we really check the performance of every aspect and we calibrate all the measurements of the instrument. Only then will we go operational." 

The team will track concentrations of gases, Kevin explains, like nitrogen dioxide from car exhausts and sulphur dioxide from volcanoes. 

However, to track global warming, the team has a dedicated channel for measuring methane. 

“Carbon dioxide is a global warming gas but methane is 28 times more dangerous and effective in causing global warming so for the first time we’re going to be measuring methane and then finally the ozone layer. The ozone layer is very important, it protects against UV radiation. With the advent of all these CFCs, hairsprays and deodorants in the sixties, we had a huge depletion of the layer. With the banning of these, it's now really important that we monitor the recovery. We have predictions that this might happen by 2040. We have to monitor this and see if all the precautions we’ve put into place are effective and that the layer is recovering because we need it.” 

These measures are now of paramount importance and have the potential to save lives. 

“We’re orbiting at about 824 kilometres, we cover the whole world every day and our data is available within 3 hours of measurement. From the end of the commissioning phase, this data will be fed into the atmospheric chemistry data and you’ll see things like warnings when the UV level gets high or the pollution level gets too high. It doesn’t affect Ireland too much but I can assure you Holland is one of the most polluted parts of the world, so is London. The statistics for premature deaths due to pollution are alarming. I saw the statistics recently for the UK; 50,000 people died prematurely because of pollution. What our satellite will do, within three hours of measurement we can give people with breathing problems to stay indoors. Pretty much real-time warnings for people on the pollution element.” 

The ESA and Enterprise Ireland signed an agreement giving Ireland access to data from the Copernicus Sentinel satellites which will now help Ireland use this data to our benefit. 

The agreement guarantees that Ireland has access to data and also ensures that the ESA provides technical advice on setting up data acquisition and dissemination, and makes data processing and archiving software available to national initiatives.

According to Kevin, aerospace has the potential growth area for Ireland. 

“It’s a huge growth area. The UK sees this as a huge opportunity for the future and they want to go after 20% of world trade in aerospace and they are investing very heavily in it. So they see it as a huge growth area and so does Enterprise Ireland. It’s certainly an area that’s expanding more and more and more.” 

The number of jobs within the ESA available to each county participating in the programme depends on the amount o a country invests in the ESA as well as work quotas, Kevin explains. 

This can mean opportunities for staff jobs within the agency are limited for Irish as the team is already at full capacity. 

“But in terms of working in aerospace, those opportunities will always be there.”

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