University of Sussex Media Release.
. Scientists on countdown to space launch on Saturday

14 July 2000
For immediate release

The countdown has started for the launch of the Cluster spacecraft, which the Space Science Centre at the University of Sussex has worked on for more than 10 years.

Two of the spacecraft are currently sitting on top of a Russian Soyuz rocket at the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakstan and and are to be launched this Saturday, 15th July. A further two identical spacecraft will be launched in August and manoeuvred to rendezvous to form a combined fleet of four. This is the first time this has ever been attempted.

Each of the four spacecraft is equipped with 11 instruments used to study how the sun influences near-Earth space, so-called "space weather". Natural effects of this include the beautiful, coloured, shimmering lights, or Aurorae, which are common near the poles of the Earth, but are sometimes visible as far south as Southern England during strong solar disturbances. Other less benign effects include the destruction of satellites and even damage to our ever more sensitive communication and power systems on the ground via "magnetic storms".

The Sussex University scientists who have worked on Cluster are Prof Paul Gough, Dr Andrew Buckley, Dr Peter Davies, together with the late Dr Peter Christiansen, and software engineers Simon Davies and Toby Champion. They have been involved with the design of one of the three UK instruments that flies on each of the four spacecraft.

They have also tested and written software for a further four sets of instruments (including one from NASA ). The Sussex Space Science Centre, which includes physicist Dr Richard Rijnbeek, will continue to work on commanding the UK DWP instrument during the operational phase and also work on the scientific data analysis from it and other instruments on Cluster.

The first set of Cluster spacecraft were destroyed four years ago on the maiden launch of the new European heavy launcher, Ariane 5. "Although the Soyuz are a reliable launch vehicle, the launch and orbital manoeuvres are always critical points in any mission," says Dr Andrew Buckley, who, together with the other Sussex and UK scientists will be travelling to near Oxford to watch the launch on Saturday via a live television link.

Notes for editors

1. The orbit of Cluster is unusual. It passes over the polar regions with an altitude ranging from 22,000 km at closest approach to as far as one third of the way to the moon (about 10 Earth diameters or 125,000 km) taking about 2.5 days to make one elliptical orbit around the Earth.

2. Each of the 4 Cluster spacecraft are 2.9 meters wide, 1.3 meters high and weighing 1200Kg; of which 71 Kg is payload.

3. The Cluster mission is funded by ESA (70%) and NASA (30%). Overall cost is 200 million pounds, cost to the UK is 27 million pounds spread over seven UK universities and research laboratories. Mission lifetime is at least two years.

4. The sun follows an 11-year sunspot cycle of activity which influences the Earth. The year 2000 is a peak of this activity and so Cluster will be measuring a particularly dynamic space environment. The magnetic field of the Earth acts as an outmost shield from the impacting solar wind which travels at about 400 km per second. Sometimes this shield can be buckled and penetrated, allowing the solar wind to get closer to the Earth and disturb its outermost ionised environment.


Dr Andrew Buckley, Research Fellow, Space Science Centre, University of Sussex, tel: 01273 678599, fax: 01273 678399, email or Prof Paul Gough, tel: 01273 678421,

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