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Esrange Space Center: Ahead into the deep colossal space

50th Anniversary of Esrange Space Center

texus-48-launched-27-nov-2011The first rocket launch from Esrange Space Center took on 19 November 1966. Since then, 50 years have passed and Esrange have always looked ahead. More than 550 rockets and 520 balloons have been launched over the years, using the vast unpopulated area. And Esrange satellite station has grown into one of the world’s busiest ground stations, serving a large variety of customers.

Esrange Space Center, which is located in Kiruna above the Arctic Circle in the vast and beautiful land northern Sweden, celebrated its 50th anniversary on October 22nd has served the scientific community well. Its customers and other stakeholders from the space industry all over the world gathered in Kiruna to celebrate the moment. The event included an Executive Roundtable with Key Notes by the ESA General Director Jan Wörner and the Swedish Space Minister Helen Hellmark-Knutsson, focusing on the coming 50 years of Esrange and space industrial development. This was followed by an open house at the Space Center and a gala dinner in Kiruna city hall.

esrange-satellite-management-servicesBeginning of the Journey

Esrange was built in 1964 by the European Space Research Organization (ESRO), which later became European Space Agency by merging with the European Launcher Development Organization. When Esrange was first built, it was established as a sounding rocket launching range.  Esrange was chosen because it was generally agreed that it was important to carry out a sounding rocket program in the auroral zone.  The first rocket launch was held on 19 November 1966.

“For the past 50 years, the Esrange Space Center has provided invaluable access to space for the European and global science and research community. The lessons we have learned from the past fifty years has prepared SSC for the needs and challenges of the future.  Earlier this year, Esrange became the first ground station for our new SSC Infinity service, specifically tailored to the smallsat and Cubesat community. We aim to further expand our services for this growing and emerging market with a new launch service, called SmallSat Express. This will be yet another way for us to deliver upon our mission – We Help Earth Benefit from Space!” – Stefan Gardefjord, CEO of SSC

In the first six years of Esrange, about 150 rockets were launched from Esrange, most with experiments involving basic research on the Aurora, ionosphere and atmospheric physics.  Following this initial period, in 1972, ownership was transferred to the newly started Swedish Space Corporation (SSC).  SSC expanded operations to included balloon launches.  With rocket and balloon capabilities at Esrange in place, the assigned missions of Esrange, for sounding rockets and balloons, evolved to the support of the sounding rocket and balloon programs of the member states of the European Space Agency.

Rocket Activities

In its 50 year history, Esrange has launched 553 rockets.  The impact zone for these rocket launches is located north of Esrange in the Swedish tundra region with a nominal impact point normally chosen which is situated 75 kilometers north of the launch pads.  Launch vehicles can reach an altitude of 70 – 800 km and the payloads land and are recovered on ground within 0.5-1 hour after launch.

0-states2-launched-19-oct-2015The vehicles, being missions of e.g. the Swedish national space program or as part of the microgravity research program of ESA, are launched from the Esrange Space Center above the polar circle, benefiting from an impact area over land of 5,200 square kilometers.  MASER is an SSC sounding rocket program with an international participation of users that provides 6-8 minutes of microgravity. The MASER program started 1987. MAXUS is a joint venture between SSC and Airbus DS that provides up to 14 minutes of microgravity. The MAXUS program started 1991.

Balloon Activities

The first stratospheric balloon was launched from Esrange Space Center in 1974 and since then 524 balloon launches have occurred, with the last balloon launch occurring earlier in October 2016 (Balloon-borne Experiments for University Students – 23). Launches are performed by the SSC launch team often in cooperation with the CNES launch team (France) or the CSBF launch team working for NASA (USA).  The balloon launch pad is the size of 40 American football fields. The impact zone for balloons launches covers the northern parts of Sweden, Norway, Finland, Russia, Canada and Alaska.  The balloons fly with the wind at a height between 15 and 45 km and carries scientific instruments for research in atmospheric physics, astronomy and meteorology, and the balloons can also be used for drop tests and to perform control measurements to validate satellite measurements.

“We have served the space community for 50 years with a track record of 550 launched sounding rockets and more than 520 balloons. We are more than ready and very eager to take the next steps into the future and expand our services and provide cost efficient solutions for our customers to reach space and beyond.”

– Lennart Poromaa, President of SSC’s Science Services Division and Head of Esrange Space Center

There are many advantages launching scientific instruments with a stratospheric balloon from Esrange Space Center. The geographical location is particularly important when you can fly a balloon in total sunlight for several days since the batteries that supply the instruments onboard with power can easily be recharged.


Another advantage of the northern location is that Esrange Space Center is located on the edge of the so-called polar vortex. It is an area with strong currents in the stratosphere that is formed over the Arctic during winter months. Polar vortex plays a significant role in ozone depletion. Therefore, there are many environmental scientists at Esrange during the winter to study the ozone problem.  Some of the balloons can be twice as large as the Globe Arena in Stockholm, lift a payload of two tons and fly from Esrange Space Center to Alaska in just over four days.  After a flight, both payload (experiment) and the balloon are brought back to Esrange Space Center by helicopter. The equipment is renovated since it can be flown again.

Launch Activities for University Students

Each year, Esrange also conducts Rocket and Balloon Experiments for University Students (REXUS/BEXUS).  This program allows students from universities and higher education colleges across Europe to carry out scientific and technological experiments on research rockets and balloons. Each year, two rockets and two balloons are launched, carrying up to 20 experiments designed and built by student teams. The REXUS/BEXUS program is realized under a bilateral Agency Agreement between the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the Swedish National Space Board (SNSB). The Swedish share of the payload has been made available to students from other European countries through collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA).

Satellite Management Services

SSC has been servicing the satellite market since the early 1970s. With its long experience and extensive technical capabilities, SSC meets requirements for small satellite systems and constellations as well as large exquisite satellite programs.  SSC Universal Space Network is an extensive global network of strategically located ground stations around the world.  Located at Esrange Space Center are the busiest Satellite Operations Center and the largest ground station in SSC’s Universal Space Network.

“Our dynamic operational concept and its high level of automation allows for rapid rescheduling within the whole ground network. This enables a high resistance to failures due to single-station outages, and provides high performance on a network level if required by the customer application.”

 Leif Österbo, SSC’s President of Satellite Management Services

SSC Infinity

Earlier this year, SSC announced a new service called SSC Infinity.  SSC Infinity is in response to a new generation of small satellites and large constellations that requires increased flexibility and exceptional availability coupled with cost-efficient operations. SSC Infinity meets these needs by leveraging technology to provide reliable, accessible and automated ground network services.  The service offers web-based and API customer interfaces for pass scheduling and is based on full motion antennas in the five meter or smaller class.  SSC Infinity makes use of standard configurations and standardized ground system hardware. By limiting the number of mission configurations and utilizing pre-qualified radios, SSC has eliminated most of the costs associated with pre-mission configuration.  The first SSC Infinity service is an important part of SSC’s global network (Universal Space Network) that is constantly expanding with new capabilities.

SmallSat Express

To meet the increasing need for launch opportunities for small satellites, SSC has initiated SmallSat Express, a European launch capability for small satellites from its launching facility Esrange Space Center. SmallSat Express is part of a bigger project with the aim to manifest Esrange as a Center of Excellence providing a multitude of services, including small satellite launch services, to the scientific community as well as commercial customers.  The facility already has a well-equipped infrastructure and experience of range and launch safety as well as handling large rocket motors and launching of guided rockets. Apart from the launch service for small satellites, coordinated operations using satellites, sounding rockets, balloons and/or ground instrumentation will be possible.  The launch service is intended for around 1-200 kg satellites; however, CubeSats are the target payloads. The launch periods will be fixed. The service will enable a standardized orbit suitable for most small satellites; sun-synchronous orbit at 500 km altitude (inclination = 97.4°) with the ascending node at 0600, 2200, and 1400 (“dawn-dusk” orbit) Local Solar Time. By using the launch service on three consecutive launches a constellation of satellites covering every local time can be established. By adding the satellite launching services SSC can provide services from the early phases of a satellite project, to launches and to operate the satellites including downloading data using the universal space network and the Infinity services.  The goal is to launch the first satellite in 2021.

Cutting Edge Opportunities

As the space domain is rapidly developing into the New Space Era, so are SSC and Esrange.  Clearly, exciting times lie ahead, but much too has been achieved for a company who has provided leading advanced space services to space programs all over the world over the past 50 years. Close co-operation with the various major space institutions and space industries on all continents has proved particularly valuable to the evolution. It has positioned SSC at the cutting edge in advanced space services for the new era approaching. SSC with Esrange is sure to unlock a fascinating new chapter to truly help earth benefit from space in the coming 50 years.


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Former Assistant Editor | Dreamer | Writer | Avid Reader | Travel Enthusiast | Go Digital | Meenal’s role largely involves content development for Geospatial World website and magazine. Meenal loves to write – be it technology, or applications, or commenting on industry trends. Keeping an eye social media for latest developments in the geospatial domain, churning out value from it and then taking it to the readers is her success formula. She has prior experience of eight years in BTL advertising and publication. A master’s degree in English Literature, Meenal is a complete movie buff and loves to spend her leisure time reading children’s literature.