UI researchers represent United States in 3-D space weather mission

July 19, 2000

University of Iowa space physics researcher Donald Gurnett and his colleagues soon will get a three-dimensional look at space weather, thanks to the successful launch of the first half of the four-satellite Cluster 2 space mission.

Gurnett says that the two spacecraft carried into Earth orbit July 16 by the Russian Soyuz rocket are reported to be functioning well and will be ready for the start of the science mission later this year. In the meantime, officials at the managing European Space Agency (ESA) will conduct tests while awaiting the Russian launch of two more identical spacecraft on August 9.

When all four spacecraft are in polar orbit in a closely-spaced pyramid formation, Gurnett, along with project manager Rich Huff, project engineer Don Kirchner and science manager Jolene Pickett, will begin to coordinate data received by the wideband plasma wave (WBD) instruments carried aboard the four satellites. The University of Iowa-designed and built instruments, each roughly the size of a toaster, will collect data on plasma waves generated in the Earth's magnetosphere, a teardrop-shaped region of energetic particles trapped in the magnetic field surrounding the Earth. Each second, the sun releases more than one million tons of electrons, protons and other particles to form a very thin gas (called plasma) that makes up the solar wind. When a large cloud of these particles reach the Earth following a solar storm, the "space weather" they create can cause such phenomena as magnetic storms and the northern lights, as well as electrical surges in power lines.

As the only U.S. experiment aboard Cluster 2, the UI project represents about 10 years of work and more than $4 million in NASA funding. The 10 other scientific experiments carried by Cluster 2 were built by Great Britain, France, Germany, Austria and Sweden and will measure such things as static and fluctuating magnetic fields at the spacecraft and electron distributions in the Earth's magnetosphere.

In addition to supporting plasma wave studies, Cluster 2 will enable Gurnett and his colleagues, UI professors Craig Kletzing, Robert Mutel and Steven Spangler, to use the four spacecraft as a single large telescope for studying low frequency radio emissions -- a technique called long baseline interferometry.

Cluster 2 is a replacement for the original Cluster space mission, which was lost June 4, 1996 when an Ariane-5 rocket exploded over Kourou, French Guiana. Gurnett notes that the Russian Soyuz rocket "is basically the same type of rocket used to launch Sputnik 1 in 1957 and has proven to be very reliable."

Cluster is part of the International Solar-Terrestrial Physics (ISTP) Program that includes the previously launched POLAR, WIND and GEOTAIL spacecraft.
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