Cluster - a European mission to study space weather


The European Cluster II space mission, comprising four identical spacecraft, will be launched in two phases in July and August this year from Kazakhstan. Once launched the spacecraft will meet up and fly in close formation around Earth, gathering information about how the Sun affects space weather. The weather in space has a profound impact on the satellites people use everyday for communication, navigation and weather forecasting.

Disaster struck the first attempt to launch this mission in 1996, when the rocket used to launch the spacecraft (the first ever Ariane 5) blew up seconds after take-off - destroying the payload. Since then four new Cluster spacecraft have been built and will be launched in two pairs from separate Soyuz rockets. These rockets are well tested and reliable, in fact they are regularly used to fly crews to the Mir space station.

British scientists have built and will operate three of the instruments on board each craft. They also have significant involvement in a fourth instrument. Each craft carries eleven instruments, which measure the complex interplay of charged particles and electromagnetic fields that make up the space environment. This information will be sent down to a ground-station on Earth.

The Cluster mission will look particularly at the nature of solar storms that constantly threaten to damage the satellites on which people rely. These storms are also responsible for the displays of 'aurorae' or Northern and Southern lights visible close to Earth's poles.

At a UK press briefing today PPARC funded scientist Dr Hugo Alleyne said, 'Cluster will explore the hazardous region of space where the world's communication, navigation and weather monitoring satellites fly. The more we know about the conditions in this environment, the better equipped these satellites can be to withstand the onslaught of magnetic and solar storms, which can, and indeed do, destroy them'.

The Cluster mission is unique in flying four identical spacecraft in formation. Previous missions have only been able to measure conditions at a single point in space. The four Cluster spacecraft will, for the first time, allow scientists to disentangle the differences in space and time within 'space weather' fronts and systems. Dr Andrew Fazakerley explained 'What have previously been just tantalising disturbances when measured from one spacecraft might turn out to be waves or even whirlwinds in space - Cluster will reveal a more complete picture'.

Lord Sainsbury, Minister for Science, said today 'The Cluster mission will revolutionise our understanding of the near-Earth space environment. In particular we shall gain important knowledge on the dynamics of space climate and its impact on global satellite systems. This will enable us to 'harden' spacecraft against solar storms and thus protect world-wide communication channels - a clear example of science delivering real commercial benefits.'

The Minister added, 'Cluster is a truly innovative European spacecraft mission and a triumph for British scientists who first dreamt up the mission and for UK industry who have played such a vital and integral role in its design and construction.'

The spacecraft are currently at Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan. The first pair will be launched on July 12th and the second pair on August 9th. The mission will last for at least two years.

For further information please contact:

PPARC press office (general enquiries)
Tel: 01793 442012
Mobile: 07881 654121 or 07899 945493

PPARC funded UK scientists (instruments)
Andre Balogh, Imperial College, London. Tel: 0207 594 7768
Andrew Fazakerley, Mullard Space Science Laboratory, Surrey. Tel: 01483 204 175
Hugo Alleyne, University of Sheffield. Tel: 0114 222 5630
Manuel Grande, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxon. Tel: 01235 446 501
Paul Gough, University of Sussex. Tel: 01273 678421
Steve Schwartz, Queen Mary and Westfield College, London. Tel: 020 7882 5449

Joint Science Operations Centre and UK Data Centre
Chris Perry, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxon. Tel: 01235 445 780
Trefor Edwards, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Oxon. Tel: 01235 446 516

Images are available from: http://www.esa.int/cluster or hard copies from PPARC press office

Video is available from: PPARC press office

Live broadcast details for launch:
Eutelsat 2 F4, 10 degrees East
Transponder 22, channel 1 (digital, 9 MHz bandwidth)
11.134,75 MHz, pol H
MPEG-2 (4:2:0), 5.632 Msymb/sec, FEC 3/4
MCR: Tel +31 71 565 6322, Fax +31 71 565 6340

Further details of the ESA broadcast are available from http://television.esa.int/

Notes for Editors

Notes to editors

* The Cluster mission is funded by ESA (70%)and NASA (30%)

* The orbit of the four Cluster spacecraft is very unusual; it passes over the polar regions and will reach up to 100,000km up into space - that's a third of the way to the moon.

* The Cluster mission is part of an integrated series of experiments to learn more about how the Sun affects our Earth. Cluster will join the SOHO, POLAR, GEOTAIL, WIND and INTERBALL missions that are already looking at different aspects of the Sun's influence on Earth. The ground-based radar's CUTLASS and EISCAT in the arctic are also working to learn more about the complex interactions in the upper atmosphere caused by the solar wind and solar storms.

* Solar storms occur when huge bursts of highly charged particles are thrown out from the Sun and hurtle towards Earth. These invisible storms of particles buffet and churn up the Earth's magnetic and plasma environment causing the aurorae (Northern and Southern lights) and are a threat to satellites in near-Earth space.

* The Sun follows an 11-year sunspot cycle of activity. The year 2000 is the peak of this cycle so Cluster will be operating in a particularly dynamic space environment.

* British scientists are central to this mission and the UK involvement will continue after launch. During the mission the UK science teams will be busy designing the mission operations plan, commanding the instruments, maintaining the health of their instruments and preparing the data for analysis. In addition the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory in Oxfordshire will operate the Joint Science Operations Centre (JSOC) on behalf of the European Space Agency. This centre will co-ordinate the requests from the science teams across Europe and merge then into an overall operations plan. The Rutherford Appleton Laboratory is also the home of the UK data centre.

* British industry has contributed substantially the mission, ASTRIUM (formerly MMS UK) have contributed many of the control systems and other UK companies have provided instrument parts and spacecraft systems.

The Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) is the UK's strategic science investment agency. It funds research, education and public understanding in four broad areas of science - particle physics, astronomy, cosmology and space science.

PPARC is government funded and provides research grants and studentships to scientists in British universities, gives researchers access to world-class facilities and funds the UK membership of international bodies such as the European Laboratory for Particle Physics, CERN, and the European Space Agency. It also contributes money for the UK telescopes overseas on La Palma, Hawaii, Australia and in Chile, the UK Astronomy Technology Centre at the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh and the MERLIN/VLBI National Facility.

PPARC's Public Understanding of Science and Technology Awards Scheme provides funding to both small local projects and national initiatives aimed at improving public understanding of its areas of science.

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