Minimize Cluster

Cluster (Four Spacecraft Constellation in Concert with SOHO)

Overview     Spacecraft    Launch    Mission Status     Sensor Complement    Ground Segment    References


Cluster is a collaborative ESA/NASA multi-spacecraft mission within ESA's `Solar Terrestrial Science Program' (STSP), part of ISTP (International Solar Terrestrial Physics Programme). The objective is the observation of key interaction processes between two cosmic plasmas [study of small-scale structures (from a few to a few tens of ion Larmor radii) in the Earth's plasma environment]. The goal is to study the physical processes involved in the interaction between the solar wind and the magnetosphere by visiting key regions like the polar cusps and the magnetotail (mapping in three dimensions the plasma structures contained in these regions). Other regions of measurement are: a) solar wind and bow shock, b) magnetopause, and c) auroral zone. The simultaneous four-point measurements (with four S/C) also allow the derivation of differential plasma quantities for the first time. 1) 2)

More detailed objectives call for the mapping of the small-scale plasma structures and current densities at:

• The solar wind bow shock: Study of the propagation of electric waves through the bow shock and magnetosheath

• The magnetopause, characterizing the motion and local geometry of the magnetopause, and identify the mechanism whereby plasma infiltrates the magnetopause

• The polar cusps, studying the behavior of postulated plasma vortices

• The magnetotail: observation of ion beams, and calculation of the magnitude of field aligned currents, in the plasma sheet boundary layer. Studies of the disruption of cross-tail currents during substorms, and the consequences for the plasma sheet

• The auroral zones. Determination of the sources of magnetospheric plasma, such as the polar wind, the cleft ion fountain, and nightside auroral zone.


Figure 1: Artist's view of the Cluster spacecraft constellation (image credit: ESA)


Cluster-I: The launch failure of Ariane-5 on June 4, 1996 with the Cluster satellites onboard and the ESA decision of a recovery program - are the reasons for a division into Cluster-I and Cluster-II programs.

The Cluster-I launch on June 4, 1996 with the first Ariane-5 flight from Kourou turned out to be a failure. Ariane-5 rose flawlessly to an altitude of 3.5 km, at which point a sudden swivelling of both solid-booster nozzles caused the vehicle to tilt sharply. The resulting intense aerodynamic structural loads caused the rocket vehicle to break up, prompting the onboard safety systems to initiate self-destruction. The entire four-spacecraft mission was lost.

Cluster-II program: In April 1997 ESA decided to go ahead with a recovery program, a new four-spacecraft mission, called Cluster-II, retaining all of the critical mission parameters. The Cluster-II mission comprises the Phoenix spacecraft (built with spares from the four original Cluster satellites) and three identical new satellites (construction and test of four S/C in 18 months, the industrial consortium was led by Astrium GmbH of Friedrichshafen, Germany). The overall objective is to investigate the physical interaction between the sun and the Earth, with four spacecraft flying in tetrahedral formation. 3) 4) 5) 6) 7) 8)

Note: The new S/C was named after the mythical bird "Phoenix." In ancient Egypt and in classical antiquity, phoenix is a fabulous long-lived bird associated with the worship of the sun. As its end approached, the phoenix fashioned a nest of aromatic boughs and spices, set it on fire, and was consumed in the flames. From the pyre miraculously sprang a new phoenix, which, after embalming its father's ashes in an egg of myrrh, flew with the ashes to Heliopolis ("City of the Sun") in Egypt, where it deposited them on the altar in the temple of the Egyptian god of the sun, Re.



The four identical Cluster S/C are spin-stabilized (15 rpm, stringent requirements on electromagnetic cleanliness). Conductive surfaces and an extremely low S/C-generated electromagnetic background noise are mandatory for accurate electric field and cold plasma measurements.


Figure 2: Illustration of the deployed Cluster spacecraft

Like their predecessor spacecraft of Cluster-I, each Cluster-II S/C is cylindrical in shape with a diameter of 2.9 m and a height of 1.3 m (launch mass = 1200 kg, payload = 71 kg, S/C (dry) = 550 kg, propellant = 650 kg), solar array power = 224 W (payload power 47 W), battery type: 5 identical silver-cadmium batteries, each of them is built of 14 cells in series with 16 Ah capacity (total battery capacity of about 80 Ah). S/C design life of 5 years (nominal operational lifetime of 27 months).

The S/C cylinder structure consists of aluminum honeycomb covered with a skin of carbon-fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP). The equipment panel inside this cylinder supports the main engine, two high-pressure fuel tanks and other parts of the propulsion system. Six spherical fuel tanks made from titanium are attached to the outside of this central cylinder. The fuel they carry accounts for more than half the launch weight of each spacecraft. Each spacecraft has a single main thruster (400 N) and eight smaller (10 N) thrusters for smaller changes of orbit. All thrusters use mono-ethyl hydrazine and mixed oxides of nitrogen for propellant. The large propellant mass is needed for an extensive series of maneuvers to reach the operational orbit and, during the course of the mission, to change the relative spacing of the S/C (constellation maintenance). The four spacecraft are spin-stabilized at 15 rpm. The in-orbit configuration is characterized by two 5 m experiment radial booms, four 50 m experiment wire booms and two axial telecommunications antenna booms. The S/C attitudes ensure a solar aspect angle of about 90º.


Figure 3: Cutaway of Cluster S/C main equipment platform showing FGM (1), EDI (2), and ASPOC (3) instruments (image credit: ESA)

The platform accommodates on one side the instruments. Each satellite carries two high capacity redundant tape recorders (data return of 50% per orbit). Two rigid booms, each 5 m, carry the magnetometers. Two pairs of wire booms, each with a tip-to-tip length of 100 m, permit electric field measurements (background magnetic field of×about 0.25 nT is aim).

S/C stabilization

Spin stabilized at 15 rpm

S/C structure diameter, height

2.9 m, 1.3 m

S/C launch mass

1200 kg (650 kg propellant, 71 kg of scientific payload)

EPS (Electric Power Subsystem)

224 W, battery capacity of 80 Ah, 47 W are allocated for payload

S/C design life

5 years

Table 1: Overview of spacecraft parameters


Figure 4: Cutaway of a Cluster S/C showing its main structural features (image credit: ESA)


Figure 5: Inspection of one the the four Cluster satellites at ESA (image credit: ESA)


Launch: The launch of the Cluster-II mission used two Soyuz launch vehicles (with the Fregat upper stage and two S/C at a time) from Baikonur, Kazakhstan (launch provider: Starsem).

• The launch of the first mission took place on July 16, 2000.

• The second pair of S/C was launched on Aug. 9, 2000.

The launch sequence called first for the injection of the S/C into an intermediate transfer orbit in pairs of two. Then, a series of propulsive maneuvers brought the four S/C from their initial transfer orbits into their mission orbits.

On the second launch day (Aug. 9, 2000), the four Cluster spacecraft were named by ESA as: Rumba (S/C 1), Salsa (S/C 2), Samba (S/C 3), and Tango (S/C 4). The names of the dances were suggested by Raymond Cotton of Bristol, UK (the winner of a naming competition); they are supposed to reflect the way in which the four satellites are dancing in formation around the heavens during their mission. The two S/C of the first launch carry the names Salsa (S/C 2) and Samba (S/C 3); the spacecraft of second launch have the names Rumba (S/C 1) and Tango (S/C 4).


Figure 6: Artist's rendition of the Fregat upper stage launching two Cluster spacecraft (image credit: ESA)

Orbit: HEO (Highly Elliptical Orbit), nominal apogee = 18.7 RE (119,000 km), perigee = 3 RE (19,000 km), inclination=90º, period of 57 hours (3420 min). The orbit for each S/C is selected so that each is located at a vertex of a predetermined tetrahedron when crossing the regions of interest within the magnetosphere. The size of this tetrahedron is varied from 200 km up to about 19,000 km during the course of the mission. The S/C, after release, use their own on-board propulsion systems to reach the final operational orbit. Since the Cluster-II orbit is fixed in the inertial system, the rotation of the Earth around the sun causes the S/C to cross the various near-Earth plasma regions, such as the Earth magnetotail soon after launch and the polar cusp and solar wind six months later.


Figure 7: Orbit plot and spacecraft configuration in neutral sheet as of June 2007 (image credit: ESA)


Figure 8: Artist's view of the Sun-Earth interaction studied by the four Cluster spacecraft (image credit: ESA)



Status of the Cluster-II mission:

• July 7,2016: Earth's atmosphere is leaking. Every day, around 90 tons of material escapes from our planet's upper atmosphere and streams out into space. Although missions such as ESA's Cluster fleet have long been investigating this leakage, there are still many open questions. How and why is Earth losing its atmosphere – and how is this relevant in our hunt for life elsewhere in the Universe? 9)

- Given the expanse of our atmosphere, 90 tons per day amounts to a small leak. Earth's atmosphere weighs in at around five quadrillion (5 x 1015) tons, so we are in no danger of running out any time soon. However, understanding Earth's atmosphere, and how it escapes to space, is key to understanding the atmospheres of other planets, and could be crucial in our hunt for habitable planets and extraterrestrial life.

- We have been exploring Earth's magnetic environment for years using satellites such as ESA's Cluster mission, a fleet of four spacecraft launched in 2000. Cluster has been continuously observing the magnetic interactions between the Sun and Earth for over a decade and half; this longevity, combined with its multi-spacecraft capabilities and unique orbit, have made it a key player in understanding both Earth's leaking atmosphere and how our planet interacts with the surrounding Solar System.

- Earth's magnetic field is complex; it extends from the interior of our planet out into space, exerting its influence over a region of space dubbed the magnetosphere.

- The magnetosphere – and its inner region (the plasmasphere), a doughnut-shaped portion sitting atop our atmosphere, which co-rotates with Earth and extends to an average distance of 20,000 km – is flooded with charged particles and ions that are trapped, bouncing back and forth along field lines (Figures 9 and 10).

- At its outer Sunward edge the magnetosphere meets the solar wind, a continuous stream of charged particles – mostly protons and electrons – flowing from the Sun. Here, our magnetic field acts like a shield, deflecting and rerouting the incoming wind as a rock would obstruct a stream of water. This analogy can be continued for the side of Earth further from the Sun – particles within the solar wind are sculpted around our planet and slowly come back together, forming an elongated tube (named the magnetotail), which contains trapped sheets of plasma and interacting field lines.


Figure 9: This illustration shows an artist's rendition of Earth's magnetosphere, the environment that surrounds our planet and is strongly shaped by its magnetic field. Beyond the outermost layers of Earth's atmosphere, space is filled with electrons and positive ions, which move along the magnetic field lines (ESA/ATG medialab)

Legend to Figure 9: The interaction between Earth's magnetic field and the solar wind produces the complex topography of the magnetosphere. In this illustration, the Sun is located to the left and the tail of the magnetosphere extend towards the right.


Figure 10: This illustration shows an artist's rendition of the plasmasphere, the innermost part of Earth's magnetosphere. This doughnut-shaped region is centered around the the planet's equator and rotates along with it (image credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

Legend to Figure 10: The plasmasphere, whose toroidal shape is forged by the magnetic field of Earth, exchanges mass and energy with the outer layers of the magnetosphere, and scientists have been studying the details of the interaction between these two regions.

Weaknesses in our magnetic shield: Our magnetosphere shield does have its weaknesses; at Earth's poles the field lines are open, like those of a standard bar magnet (these locations are named the polar cusps). Here, solar wind particles can head inwards towards Earth, filling up the magnetosphere with energetic particles (Ref. 9).

Just as particles can head inwards down these open polar lines, particles can also head outwards. Ions from Earth's upper atmosphere – the ionosphere, which extends to roughly 1000 km above the Earth – also flood out to fill up this region of space. Although missions such as Cluster have discovered much, the processes involved remain unclear.

"The question of plasma transport and atmospheric loss is relevant for both planets and stars, and is an incredibly fascinating and important topic. Understanding how atmospheric matter escapes is crucial to understanding how life can develop on a planet," said Arnaud Masson, ESA's Deputy Project Scientist for the Cluster mission. "The interaction between incoming and outgoing material in Earth's magnetosphere is a hot topic at the moment; where exactly is this stuff coming from? How did it enter our patch of space?"

Initially, scientists believed Earth's magnetic environment to be filled purely with particles of solar origin. However, as early as the 1990s it was predicted that Earth's atmosphere was leaking out into the plasmasphere – something that has since turned out to be true.

Observations have shown sporadic, powerful columns of plasma, dubbed plumes, growing within the plasmasphere, travelling outwards to the edge of the magnetosphere and interacting with solar wind plasma entering the magnetosphere.

More recent studies have unambiguously confirmed another source – Earth's atmosphere is constantly leaking! Alongside the aforementioned plumes, a steady, continuous flow of material (comprising oxygen, hydrogen, and helium ions) leaves our planet's plasmasphere from the polar regions, replenishing the plasma within the magnetosphere. Cluster found proof of this wind, and has quantified its strength for both overall (reported in a paper published in 2013) and for hydrogen ions in particular (reported in 2009).

Overall, about 1 kg of material is escaping our atmosphere every second, amounting to almost 90 tons per day. Singling out just cold ions (light hydrogen ions, which require less energy to escape and thus possess a lower energy in the magnetosphere), the escape mass totals thousands of tons per year.

Cold ions are important; many satellites – Cluster excluded – cannot detect them due to their low energies, but they form a significant part of the net matter loss from Earth, and may play a key role in shaping our magnetic environment.

Solar storms and periods of heightened solar activity appear to speed up Earth's atmospheric loss significantly, by more than a factor of three. However, key questions remain: How do ions escape, and where do they originate? What processes are at play, and which is dominant?

Where do the ions go? And how? One of the key escape processes is thought to be centrifugal acceleration, which speeds up ions at Earth's poles as they cross the shape-shifting magnetic field lines there. These ions are shunted onto different drift trajectories, gain energy, and end up heading away from Earth into the magnetotail, where they interact with plasma and return to Earth at far higher speeds than they departed with – a kind of boomerang effect.

Such high-energy particles can pose a threat to space-based technology, so understanding them is important. Cluster has explored this process multiple times during the past decade and a half – finding it to affect heavier ions such as oxygen more than lighter ones, and also detecting strong, high-speed beams of ions rocketing back to Earth from the magnetotail nearly 100 times over the course of three years.

More recently, scientists have explored the process of magnetic reconnection, one of the most efficient physical processes by which the solar wind enters Earth's magnetosphere and accelerates plasma. In this process, plasma interacts and exchanges energy with magnetic field lines; different lines reconfigure themselves, breaking, shifting around, and forging new connections by merging with other lines, releasing huge amounts of energy in the process.


Figure 11: Magnetic reconnection in the tail of Earth's magnetosphere (image credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

Here, the cold ions are thought to be important. We know that cold ions affect the magnetic reconnection process, for example slowing down the reconnection rate at the boundary where the solar wind meets the magnetosphere (the magnetopause), but we are still unsure of the mechanisms at play.

"In essence, we need to figure out how cold plasma ends up at the magnetopause," said Philippe Escoubet, ESA's Project Scientist for the Cluster mission. "There are a few different aspects to this; we need to know the processes involved in transporting it there, how these processes depend on the dynamic solar wind and the conditions of the magnetosphere, and where plasma is coming from in the first place – does it originate in the ionosphere, the plasmasphere, or somewhere else?"

Recently, scientists modelled and simulated Earth's magnetic environment with a focus on structures known as plasmoids and flux ropes – cylinders, tubes, and loops of plasma that become tangled up with magnetic field lines. These arise when the magnetic reconnection process occurs in the magnetotail and ejects plasmoids both towards the outer tail and towards Earth.

Cold ions may play a significant role in deciding the direction of the ejected plasmoid. These recent simulations showed a link between plasmoids heading towards Earth and heavy oxygen ions leaking out from the ionosphere – in other words, oxygen ions may reduce and quench the reconnection rates at certain points within the magnetotail that produce tailward trajectories, thus making it more favorable at other sites that instead send them Earthwards. These results agree with existing Cluster observations (Ref. 9).

• As of January 2016, the Cluster-II mission is more than 15 years on orbit operating nominally.

• July 2015: For the first time two ESA space missions, Cluster and Swarm, joined forces to simultaneously measure the properties of Earth's magnetic field at two different altitudes. They found a number of striking similarities in the behavior and structure of the field-aligned currents they detected, despite their vastly disparate locations – Cluster being 15,000 km above Earth and Swarm at just 500 km. FACs (Field-Aligned Currents) flow along Earth's magnetic field lines, transferring energy between the magnetosphere and ionosphere at high latitudes. Their intensity is highly variable, much more intense during magnetic substorms when colorful auroras light up the sky. What this joint activity delivers is the ability to characterize FACs in the ionosphere and magnetosphere at the same time – particularly their intensity. 10) 11)

- The three satellites of ESA's Swarm mission have the main goal of probing the strength, properties and dynamics of Earth's internal magnetic field. However the satellites' precision sensors also pick up the natural and powerful electric currents flowing through the ionosphere and magnetosphere, but these are normally considered as a noise source in Swarm measurements, with Cluster helping to disentangle them. On the other hand, enhanced understanding and eventually predicting of strong currents in the ionosphere is important because they can disrupt power grids and pipelines via induced electrical components, even triggering component burnout in transformers and other electrical devices.

- Cluster and Swarm began joining up to better understand FACs and other complex magnetic behavior around Earth in spring 2014. They will continue working together into the future, with more joint campaigns planned until 2018.


Figure 12: This schematic figure illustrates the location of the four Cluster and three Swarm spacecraft during a study carried out in April 2014. During this study, the seven spacecraft joined forces to simultaneously measure the properties of Earth's magnetic field at two different altitudes (image credit: ESA)

• July 14, 2015: ESA's Cluster mission has solved a mystery which puzzled scientists for almost half a century. Data sent back by two of the spacecraft have revealed for the first time the physical mechanism behind the generation of "noisy" waves in near-Earth space. Very narrow-banded emissions at frequencies corresponding to exact multiples of the proton gyrofrequency (frequency of gyration around the field line) from the 17th up to the 30th harmonic were observed, indicating that these waves are generated by the proton distributions. 12) 13)

- Back in 1966, the NASA satellite OGO-3 (Orbiting Geophysical Observatory-3) discovered 'noisy' plasma waves at an altitude of around 18 000 km above the Earth. The waves occurred very close to the equatorial plane of the planet's magnetic field – the geomagnetic equator. 14)

- The location of the electric and magnetic fields of these waves, together with their unstructured nature, led to them being termed 'equatorial noise'. This 'noise' turned out to be one of the most frequently observed emissions in near-Earth space, being detected by many spacecraft as they fly over the geomagnetic equator.

- Observations over the years by various space missions showed some evidence for discrete frequency bands, suggesting that the waves may interact with protons, alpha particles, and electrons near the geomagnetic equator. However, the width and spacing of these frequency bands appeared to be non-uniform and could not be accurately measured, except at low frequency.

- Although several theories were proposed to explain how these waves were generated, their value was limited by a lack of clear observational evidence that could be used to support modelling of the phenomenon, and by the limited accuracy of the proposed models.

- In an effort to solve the mystery of the generation and propagation of the equatorial noise, an international team of scientists decided to take advantage of the multipoint observations provided by ESA's Cluster mission. A specially planned Inner Magnetosphere Campaign was introduced, to study the structure of these waves in their source region.

- The most significant observations were made between 18:40 and 18:55 GMT on 6 July 2013, when all four Cluster spacecraft were flying through the outer radiation belt, close to the geomagnetic equator. Clusters 3 and 4 were very near - within 60 km of each other - while Cluster 1 was approximately 800 km from the pair, and Cluster 2 was around 4400 km away in the earthward direction from the other three.

- Observations by the STAFF (Spatio-Temporal Analysis of Field Fluctuations) instruments on Clusters 3 and 4 revealed that the waves had a highly structured and periodic pattern, providing clear observational evidence about how they were generated. The data also revealed in detail their banded structure, the most remarkable example of these structures ever observed in space.

- The spectral lines showed multiples of the frequencies of the circular motion of protons in the presence of a uniform magnetic field – the so-called proton gyrofrequency. The observations of the 'noise' emissions were, in this case, much more coherent and structured than the majority of plasma waves.

- "The clear appearance of the regular spectral lines associated with the waves reminded me of a comb," says Professor Michael Balikhin from the University of Sheffield, UK, a scientific principal investigator on Cluster and joint lead author of the paper in the journal Nature Communications which describes the research. "They were found in the precise frequency range in which equatorial noise is usually observed. This previously unobserved, well organized, and periodic structure provided definitive evidence that the waves were generated by protons."

- The Cluster measurements enabled not only the observation of the fine structure of the wave spectrum but also provided multi-satellite measurements of this emission at very short separation distances. The periodic pattern of emissions observed on Cluster 4 was almost an exact replication of that observed by Cluster 3, showing that the highly organized, periodic wave structure measured at least 60 km across.

- The spectral observations, together with observations of particle distributions, allowed the researchers to calculate the growth rates of the waves. The Cluster spacecraft measurements also enabled them to determine the polarization properties of the waves, further confirming that the observed emissions were the same type as those usually observed in equatorial noise waves. - This study clearly showed that these waves were produced by so-called ion ring distributions. This arrangement refers to the ring-like velocity distributions of the charged particles close to the geomagnetic equator, where more particles are observed at high velocity than low velocity. The Cluster spacecraft were able to measure these distributions, and models used by the scientists definitively showed that they are responsible for the excitation of the waves.

- "Waves in the inner magnetosphere have recently attracted much attention because they are capable of accelerating electrons to relativistic energies in the radiation belts or providing a mechanism that results in the loss of these particles into the atmosphere – two fundamental aspects of space weather," says Philippe Escoubet, ESA's Cluster project scientist. "This study has definitively identified the source of the equatorial noise that was discovered almost half a century ago. Understanding the mechanisms behind the generation of waves may be important for studies of laboratory plasmas and of plasmas elsewhere in the Universe."


Figure 13: Illustration of the four Cluster spacecraft flying through the Earth's outer radiation belt, close to the geomagnetic equator, where on 6 July 2013, between 18:40 and 18:55 GMT, Cluster observed the type of plasma waves known as equatorial noise (image credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

Legend to Figure 13: Two of the spacecraft, Cluster 3 and 4, were very near - within 60 km of each other - while Cluster 1 was approximately 800 km from the pair, and Cluster 2 was around 4400 km away in the earthward direction from the other three.
The inset on the right shows the observations by the STAFF (Spatio-Temporal Analysis of Field Fluctuations) instruments on Cluster 3 (upper panel) and Cluster 4 (lower panel). These observations revealed that the waves had a highly structured and periodic pattern, providing clear observational evidence about how they were generated. The data also revealed in detail their banded structure, the most remarkable example of these structures ever observed in space.

• March 25, 2015: One of the four Cluster satellites has shifted its orbit to ensure a safe reentry when the time comes, as well as providing a rare opportunity to study how a satellite's exhaust plume interacts with the solar wind. ESA's Cluster quartet, in orbit since 2000, is studying the detailed structures of Earth's magnetosphere – our protective magnetic bubble – and its environment in 3D. The identical satellites fly in highly elliptical orbits between 6 km and 20 000 km apart, depending on the regions that each satellite's set of 11 identical instruments is studying. 15)

- With their current paths, three will safely reenter the atmosphere between 2024 and 2026, tugged down to a planned destruction by gravity and atmospheric drag once their fuel is exhausted. But after 15 years of complex maneuvering that has enabled the fleet to gather valuable data in three dimensions, Cluster-1 ended up in a rather different orbit – leaving it to reenter much later than the others.

- Planning for a safe reentry. The delayed reentry exposed it to additional perturbations and undesired natural variations in its orbit, meaning that it might have reentered over the northern hemisphere, where population densities are high, according to Detlef Sieg, a flight dynamics specialist at ESA/ESOC. - By performing a thruster burn now, the team could bring forward its reentry date to match those of the other satellites and plan for a future safe descent over the much less populated southern hemisphere.

- A sequence of three thruster burns was carried out by the team at ESOC on 9, 17 and 25 March. These will maintain Cluster-1's orbital position relative to the other satellites, while shifting the angle of its orbit and make the orbit a little more elliptical. - The Sun and the Moon will now affect its orbit over the next decade such that the minimum altitude in 2025, after the mission's science gathering ends, will finally become low enough for the atmosphere to capture it and cause it to burn up safely.

- The 17 March firing – the largest in eight years for Cluster – was the largest of the three burns, and two aspects made it particularly challenging. There was uncertainty as to the amount of fuel left in the tanks, and the satellite's orientation with respect to the Sun was close to the safe operating limit.

- Rare chance for unique science. In addition, the flight control team were asked to perform the burns while some science observations continued. According to Philippe Escoubet, the Cluster Project Scientist, an experiment was conducted, suggested by one of our recently selected guest investigators, collecting electric and magnetic data during the thruster firing. The measurements will be used to study the interaction between the cloud of gas generated by the thrusters and the solar wind, the plasma emitted by the Sun.

• January 16, 2015: The constellation of Cluster satellites has been rejigged to bring two of the four satellites to within almost touching distance. ESA's goal is to study Earth's ‘bow shock' in the solar wind. During each orbit, the two satellites cross almost the same two points near the bow shock just three seconds apart. 16)

- This month, the Cluster satellites 3 and 4 were maneuvered to within about 6 km of each other, adjusting the formation to observe the activity at Earth's bow shock – the region where the solar wind decelerates from supersonic to subsonic speeds before being deflected around our planet.

- The ultra-close alignment was achieved on 7 January, and they will stay like this until mid-March, 2015. During this two-month alignment, the other two satellites will maintain more or less in steady positions with respect to the first two, about 5000 km away.


Figure 14: Illustration of the Cluster quartet (image credit: ESA)

• Dec. 18, 2014: Origin of high-latitude auroras revealed. 17) 18)

An international research team studied the data collected simultaneously by the Cluster and Image satellites on 15 September 2005. While the four Cluster satellites were located in the southern hemisphere magnetic lobe, Image had a wide-field view of the southern hemisphere aurora. As one Cluster satellite observed uncharacteristically energetic plasma in the lobe, Image saw the ‘arc' of the theta aurora cross the magnetic footprint of Cluster.

The solar wind - a stream of plasma – electrically charged atomic particles - is launched by the Sun and travels across the Solar System, carrying its own magnetic field with it.

Depending on how this ‘interplanetary magnetic field' is aligned with Earth's magnetic field when it arrives, there can be various results.

- At the point where the two fields meet, Earth's magnetic field points north. If the interplanetary field is pointing south, then ‘magnetic reconnection' can occur, where magnetic field lines pointing in opposite directions spontaneously break and reconnect with other nearby field lines. This opens the door to solar wind plasma entering the magnetosphere – Earth's magnetic ‘bubble'. The ultimate result can be colorful displays in the night sky known as the Northern or Southern Lights, produced when the particles are channelled along Earth's magnetic field lines and strike atoms high in the atmosphere. The interaction with oxygen atoms results in a green or, more rarely, red glow in the night sky, while nitrogen atoms yield blue and purple colors. Normally, the main region for this impressive display is the ‘auroral oval', which lies at around 65–70 degrees north or south of the equator, encircling the polar caps.

- But when the interplanetary magnetic field points northward, auroras can occur at even higher latitudes. One type is known as a ‘theta aurora' because seen from above it looks like the Greek letter theta – an oval with a line crossing through the center. While the genesis of the auroral oval emissions is reasonably well understood, the origin of the theta aurora was unclear until now.

A clue comes from the particles observed in the two ‘lobe' regions of the magnetosphere. The plasma in the lobes is normally cold, but previous observations suggested that theta auroras are linked with unusually hot lobe plasma, though quite how was unclear.

Previously it was unclear whether this hot plasma was a result of direct solar wind entry through the lobes of the magnetosphere, or if the plasma is somehow related to the plasma sheet on the night side of Earth. One idea is that the process of magnetic reconnection on the night side of Earth causes a build-up of ‘trapped' hot plasma in the higher latitude lobes.

The mystery was finally solved by studying data collected simultaneously by the Cluster and Image satellites on 15 September 2005. While the four Cluster satellites were located in the southern hemisphere magnetic lobe, Image had a wide-field view of the southern hemisphere aurora. As one Cluster satellite observed uncharacteristically energetic plasma in the lobe, Image saw the ‘arc' of the theta aurora cross the magnetic footprint of Cluster (Figure 16).

The research team found that the energetic plasma signatures occur on high-latitude magnetic field lines that have been ‘closed' by the process of magnetic reconnection, which then causes the plasma to become relatively hot. Since the field lines are closed, the observations are incompatible with direct entry from the solar wind. By testing this and other predictions about the behavior of the theta aurora, our observations provide strong evidence that the plasma trapping mechanism is responsible for the theta aurora.

This is the first time that the origin of the theta aurora phenomenon has been revealed, and it is thanks to localized measurements from Cluster combined with the wide-field view of Image that one can better understand another aspect of the Sun–Earth connection.


Figure 15: Schematic of the Cluster and Image missions during aurora observation - observed on Sept. 15, 2005 and released on Dec. 18, 2014 (image credit: ESA/NASA/SOHO/LASCO/EIT)

Legend to Figure 15: The night side of the terrestrial magnetosphere forms a structured magnetotail, consisting of a plasma sheet at low latitudes that is sandwiched between two regions called the magnetotail lobes. The lobes consist of the regions in which Earth's magnetic field lines are directly connected to the magnetic field carried by the solar wind. Different plasma populations are observed in these regions – plasma in the lobes is very cool, whereas the plasma sheet is more energetic.

The diagram labels by two red dots the location of an ESA Cluster satellite and NASA's Image satellite on 15 September 2005, when particular conditions of the magnetic field configuration gave rise to a phenomenon known as ‘theta aurora'.


Figure 16: Theta aurora as seen by NASA's Image satellite on 15 September 2005 (image credit: NASA, R. Fear et al.)

Legend to Figure 16: The green lines show latitude and longitude lines and the outlines of the continents; Australia is to the right, South America is to the left and Antarctica is in the middle. The theta aurora is seen slightly off-center, above the right-hand side of Antarctica in this orientation, its characteristic shape defined by the ‘bar' connecting the auroral oval. The bright region to the left is ‘day glow' (the sunlit atmosphere). - The resolution of the image is 256 x 256 pixels, which is the native resolution of the far-ultraviolet Wideband Imaging Camera (Ref. 17). 19)

• Nov. 20, 2014: ESA's SPC (Science Program Committee) has given green light for the flotilla of spacecraft to continue their key scientific endeavors for at least another two years. After a comprehensive review by the Science Program's advisory structure of the current operational status and likely scientific return of each mission in the future, the SPC agreed to continue funding for six ESA-led missions (Cluster, INTEGRAL, Mars Express, PROBA-2, SOHO and XMM-Newton) for the period 1 January 2015 – 31 December 2016. 20)

• In May/June 2014, the Cluster Constellation is operational, going strong, in its 14th year on orbit. The 4 Cluster spacecraft were designed in the early 1990s for a 3 year mission through the Earth's magnetosphere. The first mission extension to 2005 was granted in 2002. Since then, four more mission extensions have been approved up to the end of 2016. A request to extend the mission up to the end of 2018 is currently in preparation. 21)

- Differences between the spacecraft: The four spacecraft are referred to operationally as C1, C2, C3, and C4. (At launch the four spacecraft were given the names ‘Rumba', ‘Salsa', ‘Samba', and ‘Tango' but this was not adopted in operations.) The target of having four identical spacecraft, payload and platform, was largely met. However since 2005 some small differences between the platforms have played an increasingly important role during the extended mission. The spacecraft were mounted in pairs onto the launcher: C1 above C4 and C3 above C2. The mounting ring with clamp band of the lower spacecraft is not covered with insulation foil. This ring acts as a cooling device in inclined attitude when it is not illuminated by the Sun. Therefore, at the same heating power, spacecraft C2 and C4 are colder than C1 and C3.

- Platform status: All platform redundancies are still available and the subsystems are in remarkable good conditions with the exception of the batteries and solar arrays. The actual subsystem status in March 2014 and the remaining resources onboard are shown on Table 2.


C1 (FMS)




OBDH + SSR (Solid Sate Recorder)

Minor TM failed
(after battery cracks)



Minor TM failed
(after battery cracks)

TTC (Tx & High Power Amplifier)

Tx1 & HPA1 still in use

Thermal Subsystem

Only HTR-F and HTR-H are used in routine






6.7 kg

6.2 kg

7.1 kg

4.7 kg

Batteries (80 Ah at launch)

0 Ah

BTR 1&5 1.9 Ah

BTR 5 1.0 Ah

0 Ah

not to be used anymore

Solar Array Power (March 2014)

152 W

161 W

166 W

164 W

BOL in Sept. 2000

268 W

260 W

276 W

273 W

Table 2: Platform status of all 4 spacecraft. All redundant units available (green); marginal fuel and power (yellow)

Green indicates that all redundant units of the subsystem are operational. All heaters still function, but most are disabled due to the low power from the solar arrays. The size of the time tagged command buffer and the SSR was increased in 2005 to have more flexibility in pass scheduling, i.e. to bridge a longer period without ground contact. Instead of 1500 commands, now 2000 commands can be stored on board. The third memory module of the SSR, which was in cold redundancy, was activated. It is now used routinely together with the other two and 7.5 Gbit storage is available. The loss of some telemetry channels in C1 and C4 has had a minor operational impact after electrolyte escaped from the battery cracks causing shorts on unprotected connectors of the remote terminals.

- Fuel: The five silver-cadmium (AgCd) batteries had 16 Ah name plate capacity each. They provided power during eclipses and buffered power spikes. In the early 1990s, AgCd batteries were the only non-magnetic space-qualified batteries. Their lifetime is mainly limited by the amount of cadmium which is gradually dissolved by the KOH electrolyte. They were designed for a 3 year mission and sealed to withstand an internal pressure up to 13 bar. Cell misalignment, over-charge and over-discharge lead to irreversible production of hydrogen and hydrogen gas. Five batteries had experienced cracks causing small ΔV up to 1 cm/s and in two cases corrupting some telemetry channels. The last three functional batteries were declared non-operational in March 2014 to avoid further cracks with uncontrollable impact.

- Solar arrays: The second strongest operational impact is the reduction in solar array output power. The power is now at ~60% of the initial value. The evolution of the solar array power of all spacecraft since launch is shown in Figure 17.

The differences in the orbits are caused by a different evolution during the time with low perigee altitude. From 2008 onwards, the orbits passed through the inner Van Allen belt and the power output dropped much faster. Since 2005, spacecraft C3 and C4 are in the same orbit. Spacecraft C2 reached the lowest perigee height of all: its minimum was 240 km in June 2012. In 2011, the output power on C2 remained constant for some months. At this time, it was observed that the solar arrays became suddenly colder. A potential explanation is that atomic oxygen altered the cell cover. The probes of the EEW instrument on C2 observed a change in the photo electron emission rate in this time. The increasing efficiency of colder arrays compensated the radiation damage for a while. Spacecraft C1 is a special case. It has a mixture of old and new panels. Spacecraft C1 experienced in 2010 and 2011 the strongest decrease.

The degradation rate is moderate again since 2013 when the perigee altitude of all spacecraft has remained again above 11,000 km. The temperature dependence of the cells has changed after the passages through the inner van Allen belts: increasing cell temperature now reduces the performance. This change is strongest on C1 but noticeable on all spacecraft. This is noticeable in Figure 17: the seasonal amplitude became smaller and the periodicity of the maxima changed from 12 to 6 months since 2013. The output power increases at aphelion in January - but also increases the cell temperature. This has a direct operational effect on C1 and C2 at each perigee. The Earth's albedo causes a power drop, e.g. when spacecraft C2 passed its perigee in August 2012 the cell temperature raised from 6ºC to 11ºC and the power dropped by 30 W.


Figure 17: Evolution of the solar array power of all 4 Cluster spacecraft during the mission (image credit: ESA, Ref. 21)

Routine operations with low power: The evolution of the Cluster orbits had several major operational consequences:

1) The visibility increased from ground stations in the southern hemisphere while it decreased from those further north. Since about 2012 this trend is reverting again. However, the most dramatic effects were the lowering of the perigee heights.

2) The number of Earth eclipses per year increased greatly.

3) The solar arrays degraded faster when passing through the inner radiation belt below 11,000 km altitude.

4) The albedo of the Earth heated the arrays and still causes a power drop around perigee.

5) With decreasing perigee height the apogee increased and reduced the capability to downlink science data in high bit rate.

6) The power flux density of the transmitter signal became too high at low altitudes. It reached the upper limit of the International Telecommunication Union's regulations. The transmitter had to be switched off below 6,000 km and valuable potential time for data dumps could not be used.

The decreasing solar array power since 2010 drives operational changes of the thermal control and the TTC subsystem.

• May 2014: For many years, scientists have been striving to understand the constantly changing structure and behavior of the huge magnetic bubble that surrounds our planet. A geomagnetic model, developed by Nikolai Tsyganenko (Saint Petersburg State University) and others, is based on direct observations by spacecraft. In essence, this approach involves a description of the global magnetic field and its responses to interactions with the solar wind by developing a model that provides the best agreement with spacecraft data. 22)

Five decades of space missions have produced enormous amounts of archived data, and a whole suite of so-called empirical models have already been developed on that basis. Recent and ongoing multi-spacecraft missions, such as Cluster, keep adding a flood of valuable new data. In most cases, their observations are supported by simultaneous data from solar wind probes and ground-based geomagnetic observatories.

Taking advantage of the latest space missions, Tsyganenko has published the first results of data-based modelling of Earth's magnetic field based on information sent back by the Cluster, Polar, Geotail and THEMIS spacecraft during the period 1995–2012. His recent paper is:

Nikolai A. Tsyganenko, "Data-based modeling of the geomagnetosphere with an IMF-dependent magnetopause," Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics,Volume 119, Issue 1, pp: 335–354, January 23, 2014, doi: 10.1002/2013JA019346, URL:

The paper analyses solar wind – magnetosphere interactions covering 123 geomagnetic storms. Most of the spacecraft that contributed to the existing archived database covered the near-equatorial part of the magnetosphere, where most of the electric currents flow. However, to construct a global model one also needs observations made in high-latitude geospace, including the dayside polar cusps, where solar wind plasma penetrates the magnetosphere.


Figure 18: Model magnetosphere field plots (image credit: Nikolai Tsyganenko)

Legend to Figure 18: Illustrating the effect of the IMF Bz -related change in the magnetopause flaring rate on the degree of the model tail field stretching. The field lines are color-coded according to their foot point latitude, to help visualize the difference between the configurations.

The Cluster mission is an especially valuable source of data, owing to its multi-year long operation period (launched in 2000), high orbital inclination, and its ability to resolve the fine structure of electric currents, owing to the specially designed constellation of four spacecraft, flying in close proximity of each other. Thanks to the Cluster Science Data System and the Cluster Active Archive, which provide easy access to the best calibrated Cluster data, such essential models can be produced to support magnetospheric physicists worldwide.

• Nov. 2013: The Cluster mission operated a "tilt campaign" during the month of May 2008. Two of the four identical Cluster spacecraft were placed at a close distance (~50 km) from each other and the spin axis of one of the spacecraft pair was tilted by an angle of ~46º. This gave the opportunity, for the first time in space, to measure the global characteristics of AC electric field, at the sensitivity available with long boom (88 m) antennas, simultaneously from the specific configuration of the tilted pair of satellites and from the available base of three satellites placed at a large characteristic separation (~1 RE). 23)

This new study using ESA's Cluster mission has shown improved precision in determining the source of a radio emission produced by the Earth. The experiment involved tilting one of the four identical Cluster spacecraft to measure the electric field of this emission in three dimensions for the first time. 24)


Figure 19: The Cluster spacecraft in special configuration for observing Earth's radio wave emissions in May 2008 (image credit: ESA)

Legend to Figure 19: The Cluster spacecraft C3 and C4, in the foreground, were used as a single observatory for the study. The C3 spacecraft (right) is shown in the special 'tilt' configuration that was used for the observations for a period of one month. The 45 degree tilt allowed for detection of the signal in 3D, and showed different results to the more typical triangulation method.

Two main types of radio waves, with different generation mechanisms, are known to be produced within the Earth's magnetosphere: the AKR (Auroral Kilometric Radiation) and the NTC (Non-Thermal Continuum) radiation. Both have been observed in space around Earth since the 1970s, and within the magnetospheres of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune since the late 1980s. Radio waves can travel long distances, carrying with them useful information from the regions of the magnetosphere where they are generated.

The study researchers (Ref. 23) analyzed radio waves measured by the WHISPER instruments on board of the four Cluster spacecraft. They showed that classical triangulation, in this case using three of the spacecraft situated thousands of kilometers apart, can lead to a source location nowhere near the boundaries where NTC generation occurs. NTC can emit from the plasmapause, and possibly from the magnetopause. The erroneous source location, far from these boundaries, given by triangulation is attributed to small deviations from the assumed polarization of the emission.

The second method, using the new 3D electric field measurements, indicated a source located along the plasmapause at medium geomagnetic latitude, far away from the source location estimated by triangulation. The Cluster observations reveal, that this NTC source emits from the flank of the plasmapause towards the polar cap. Understanding the source of the NTC waves will help with a broader understanding of their generation, amplification, and propagation.

The new 3D method involved placing two of the four identical Cluster spacecraft, C3 and C4, within 50 km of each other so that they could be considered as a single observatory.

While the other spacecraft remained in their normal positions with their spin plane roughly level with the ecliptic plane, the spin axis of C3 was tilted to an angle of 45º, its spinning antenna pointing to directions outside the ecliptic plane. This allowed the radio waves to be measured locally in three dimensions by the C3 - C4 observatory, with two identical 88 m long-boom antennas capable of catching faint waves, for the first time in space.

• Sept. 20, 2013: In an orbital reconfiguration that will help to maintain the mission's life span, two of the four satellites, namely C1 and C3, achieved their closest-ever separation on 19 September, closing to within just 4 km of each other as they orbited at up to 23,000 km/h high above Earth. 25)

The project is optimizing the Cluster formation so that the separation between Cluster 1 and the duo of Cluster 3 and 4 – which are on almost identical orbits – is kept below 100 km when the formation crosses Earth's magnetic equator. The formation will hold three of the four satellites close together at lower altitudes, optimizing the range of science observations. The new formation will be held until early November before the separations are increased to more than 1000 km.

• Sept. 2013: A new Cluster mission study of the relations between the position of the plasmapause and the position of the radiation belt boundaries was published by an international team of physicists. During the period 1 April 2007 to 31 March 2009, the Cluster constellation penetrated deep inside the plasmasphere and the radiation belts, with a lowest orbital point of 2 RE. The team decided to take this rare opportunity to analyze populations of electrons of different energies in these regions with three of the instruments on board the Cluster satellite C3. 26) 27)

The positions of the outer radiation belt's boundaries were deduced by analyzing background data from the CIS (Cluster Ion Spectrometry) instrument, which is sensitive to electrons with energy > 2 MeV, while the position of the plasmapause (the edge of the plasmasphere) was obtained from data of the WHISPER (Waves of HIgh frequency and Sounder for Probing of the Electron density by Relaxation) instrument, which is able to determine the electron density inside and outside the plasmasphere. These results were then refined by comparing them with data from the RAPID (Research with Adaptive Particle Imaging Detectors) instrument, which determined the locations of the radiation belts' boundaries by detecting high energy electrons between 244 and 406.5 keV.

Several hundred data sets were obtained over the two year period of observation, which happened to coincide with a period of low solar activity and generally quiet geomagnetic conditions. The team's analysis of the Cluster C3 observations showed more variety in the position of the outer edge of the plasmasphere – the plasmapause – than in the position of the furthest boundary of the outer radiation belt.

For long periods, when geomagnetic activity was low, the plasmapause was located toward the farthest reaches of the outer belt – typically around 6 RE, but sometimes expanding outward to 8 RE or beyond. This result contrasted with previous studies based on other spacecraft observations, which indicated a correlation between the position of the inner edge of the outer belt and the position of the plasmapause.

However, there were indications of different behavior during the occasional periods of higher geomagnetic activity. Then, the plasmapause moved closer to the inner boundary of the outer radiation belt, at around 4.5 RE, as observed by previous studies.

During the periods of low geomagnetic activity, the plasmasphere was more easily filled by material from the underlying ionosphere - Earth's highest atmospheric layer. During geomagnetic storms, however, the diameter of the plasmasphere was reduced and the plasmapause moved closer to Earth.

The thickness of the slot region, which separates the two main belts, was also found to follow the variations in geomagnetic activity. Particle loss in the radiation belts increased after the activity decreased and the plasmasphere expanded, causing the slot region to become wider.


Figure 20: The the panels show how the relative locations of the outer boundary of the Earth's plasmasphere, the plasmapause, (shown in blue) and the van Allen belts (shown in red) change according to geomagnetic conditions (image credit: ESA, C. Carreau)

Legend to Figure 20: The plasmasphere – the innermost part of the Earth's magnetosphere – is a donut-shaped region of low energy charged particles (cold plasma) centered around the planet's equator and rotating along with it. Its toroidal shape is determined by the magnetic field of Earth. The plasmasphere begins above the upper ionosphere and extends outwards, with the outer boundary varying (depending on geomagnetic conditions) from 4.5 Earth radii (RE) to 8 RE.

The two Van Allen radiation belts are concentric, tire-shaped belts (shown in blue) of highly energetic (0.1–10 MeV) electrons and protons, which are trapped by the magnetic field and travel around the Earth. These radiation belts partly overlap with the plasmasphere. The inner Van Allen belt is located typically between 6000 and 12 000 km (1 - 2 RE) above Earth's surface, although it dips much closer over the South Atlantic Ocean. The outer radiation belt covers altitudes of ~25 000 to 45 000 km (4 to 7 RE).

Both belts are separated from each other by an empty "slot" region. A temporary third belt (not shown in this image), between this slot and the outer main belt, was detected in 2013 by NASA's Van Allen Probes.

Data from the Cluster mission have shown that the position of the plasmapause – the outer boundary of the plasmasphere – is quite variable and, in addition, that the size of the slot region between the radiation belts varies with changes in geomagnetic conditions.

During periods of low geomagnetic activity (top panel) the plasmapause typically extends to around 6 RE, occasionally expanding beyond the boundary of the outer radiation belt, as far as 8 RE or even further. This result contrasts with previous studies based on observations from different spacecraft which indicated a correlation between the position of the plasmapause and the location of the inner edge of the outer belt.

During periods of higher geomagnetic activity (with moderate activity illustrated in the central panel and high activity in the lower panel) the plasmapause moves closer to the inner boundary of the outer belt, to around 4.5 RE. This behavior is similar to that observed by previous studies. (Note that the outer radiation belt also moves, but at a slower rate, towards the Earth). The size of the slot region also varies with geomagnetic conditions, being wider during low geomagnetic activity (Ref. 27).

Mission operations extension: On June 19, 2013, ESA's SPC (Science Program Committee) approved an extension of the Cluster-II mission until the end of 2016 - consistent with previous cycles, these are subject to mid-term confirmation, in late 2014. 28)

Magnetic reconnection: In March 2013, a study was published in which scientists have resolved the detailed structure of the core region where magnetic reconnection takes place in the magnetosphere of Earth using unprecedented wave measurements. The study, based on data from ESA's Cluster mission, has mapped different types of electrostatic waves in this region. The waves trace populations of plasma particles that are involved in the different stages of a magnetic reconnection event. 29) 30)

The study is based on data gathered by three of the four Cluster spacecraft (C1, C3 and C4) on 10 September 2001 as they crossed a magnetic reconnection region in the magnetotail of Earth's magnetic environment.


Figure 21: The magnetic reconnection region in the tail of Earth's magnetosphere (image credit: ESA/ATG medialab)

Legend to Figure 21: This illustration shows the configuration of a region, in the tail of Earth's magnetosphere, where magnetic reconnection is taking place. Two flows of plasma with anti-parallel magnetic fields are pushed together, flowing in from above and below, and create a thin current sheet. As plasma keeps flowing towards this sheet, particles are accelerated and eventually released via two symmetric jets to the left and right. This creates an X-shaped transition region, with a 'separatrix' region that divides the inflowing plasma from the outflows of highly energetic particles.

In situ measurements of electric and magnetic fields performed with ESA's Cluster mission have peered through the structure of the separatrix region and identified three different types of electrostatic waves that arise there. The data revealed that both low- and high-frequency waves – known as Electron-Cyclotron waves (represented in cyan in this illustration) and Langmuir waves (represented in blue), respectively – are present in the vicinity of the inflowing plasma. Single-pulsed waves called Electrostatic Solitary Waves (represented in white) are found closer to the outflowing plasma.

Magnetic reconnection is ubiquitous in the Universe. The phenomenon, which occurs in plasma, is triggered by microscopic processes and causes macroscopic effects: magnetic field lines from different domains collide and later assume a different configuration. Magnetic reconnection produces rapid and global changes to the arrangement of a magnetic environment – for example, the magnetosphere of Earth. This process is an efficient mechanism to convert energy stored in the magnetic field to kinetic energy.

Waves play an important role in the transfer of mass and energy across different plasma layers. Various types of waves develop during magnetic reconnection and tracing these waves through in situ measurements in Earth's magnetosphere is a unique way to investigate the reconnection process. Scientists have now used data from ESA's Cluster mission to characterize electrostatic waves in the tail of the magnetosphere and to 'see' into the heart of a magnetic reconnection region.

Most of the action during a magnetic reconnection event takes place at the thin boundaries that separate different layers of plasma. For the first time, we were able to see through this thin boundary and identify the different types of waves that arise there.

Magnetic reconnection starts with two colliding flows of plasma whose magnetic fields are aligned along opposite directions: when pushed together, these create a thin sheet of current. As plasma keeps flowing towards this sheet from both sides, particles are accelerated and eventually released via two jets. This creates an X-shaped transition region, with a 'separatrix' region that divides the inflowing plasma from the outflows of highly energetic particles.

Viberg and his colleagues searched through the vast data archive of the Cluster mission for an event during which the spacecraft crossed the separatrix region during magnetic reconnection, and during which they were collecting data with the WBD (Wide Band Data) instrument. By making high-resolution measurements of the electric and magnetic fields, WBD allows scientists to probe the structure of the plasma through waves, rather than particles. Although they found only one suitable event in the archive, the spacecraft had crossed the transition between inflow and outflow regions several times during this event, providing enough statistics for a robust investigation.

The Cluster spacecraft detected waves only in the separatrix region – not in the inflowing or outflowing plasma – confirming the team's earlier suspicions. But there's more, because the team has also resolved, for the first time, the structure of this region, as the spacecraft saw different types of electrostatic waves while flying across the separatrix.

Close to the boundary between separatrix and inflow regions, the scientists identified two types of waves: one type with high frequencies, the Langmuir waves, and another with low frequencies, known as Electron-Cyclotron waves. Deeper into the separatrix region, towards the outflowing plasma, they detected Electrostatic Solitary Waves – single-pulsed waves that span a very broad frequency range.

This study provides the first detailed mapping of the types of waves found throughout the magnetic reconnection region and the first detection of Electron-Cyclotron waves in such a region. Resolving the structure of the separatrix region allows scientists to investigate the mechanisms underlying magnetic reconnection. Since different types of waves are produced by particles with different properties, the scientists analyzed the correlation between the populations of particles detected in conjunction with the various types of waves.

Table 3: Magnetic reconnection study of high-frequency waves in the reconnection diffusion region of the Cluster mission (Ref. 29)

• The Cluster-spacecraft and their payloads are operational in 2013. The current mission extension is to the end of 2014. ESA/NASA MOU extended up to 31 Dec. 2016. 31)

Magnetospheric substorms: A new study based on data from ESA's Cluster mission has revealed the importance of bursty bulk flows (BBFs) - fast streams of plasma that are launched towards Earth during the magnetic substorms that give rise to bright aurorae. By modelling these fast plasma streams using a kinetic approach, scientists have discovered that earlier studies based on magnetohydrodynamics tended to underestimate their role in the energy transfer during magnetic substorms. The new, more accurate description suggests that BBFs can carry up to one third of the total energy transferred during a substorm; in such cases, BBFs represent a major contributor to the brightening of aurorae. 33)

Bright aurorae arise during magnetic substorms, violent events in Earth's magnetic environment, the magnetosphere. Substorms result from variations in the solar wind, the stream of electrically charged particles released by the Sun. When the solar wind changes in such a way as to invert the orientation of the interplanetary magnetic field, the tail of the magnetosphere gets compressed and blows powerful streams of highly-energetic plasma both towards Earth and in the opposite direction. As a consequence, plasma particles can infiltrate the upper layer of Earth's atmosphere – the ionosphere – producing breath-taking aurorae but also disturbing telecommunication networks and GPS.

While the overall picture underlying magnetic substorms and aurorae is understood quite well, the science community is still far from the detailed understanding that would allow to predict phenomena in Earth's magnetosphere. In the study presented, the international team tried to achieve a more accurate description of the magnetospheric plasma by applying an alternative approach to the analysis of BBFs, which are very fast streams of particles launched towards Earth during a substorm.

One of the vexed questions in the study of magnetic substorms concerns how exactly energy is transported across the magnetosphere, and in particular to Earth, during these events. Exploiting data from ESA's Cluster mission, Jinbin Cao and his collaborators have revealed the importance of BBFs, a previously neglected mechanism. Surprisingly, BBFs turned out to be a major player in the energy transfer during the magnetic substorm that was analyzed in this study.

The ESA study is based on data gathered with the CIS (Cluster Ion Spectrometry) experiment on board one of the four Cluster spacecraft (C1) on 30 July 2002. The results are described in the paper by Jinbin Cao of the Space Science Institute,Beihang University, Beijing, China as lead author. 32)

The energy transport of BBFs is very important to the understanding of substorm energy transport. Previous studies all used the MHD (Magnetohydrodynamics) bulk parameters to calculate the energy flux density of BBFs. BBFs are short-lived phenomena, lasting typically ten to twenty minutes, and previous studies considered their contribution to the total energy transferred in a substorm to be marginal, adding up to only 5%. - In this approach, the team used the kinetic approach, i.e., the ion velocity distribution function to study the energy transport of an earthward bursty bulk flow observed by Cluster C1 on 30 July 2002.

Studying the dynamics of plasma is notoriously complex, and even more so in the magnetic environment of our planet. Collision dominated plasmas, such as those in planetary ionospheres, are usually modelled in terms of MHD, an approach which treats all particles in the plasma as part of a single fluid. In Earth's magnetosphere, however, the experimental constraints coming from in situ measurements are so precise that they reveal that the MHD approximation is not always applicable.

Table 4: The Cluster mission of ESA finds the source of the aurora energy boost 32) 33)

• On June 7, 2012, the results of a new study were announced by an ESA press release — dealing with a most likely explanation of the particle acceleration in the Earth's magnetosphere, a long awaited contribution/confirmation in the debate concerning how and where these particles are accelerated. 34) 35) 36)

The study is based on data gathered by the four Cluster spacecraft on 14 February 2003 as they were moving across the northern cusp of Earth's magnetosphere. During this event, the separation between the four spacecraft was large enough (about 5000 km) that spacecraft within and outside the cusp could take simultaneous measurements. The spacecraft measured the density and energy of high-energy electrons, protons and oxygen ions, the strength of the magnetic field and the pitch angle of the particles (the inclination of the direction of motion of a particle with respect to the magnetic field).

The data collected by the four spacecraft, together with high-resolution, three-dimensional magneto-hydrodynamic simulations, suggest that the high-energy particles observed in the cusps are accelerated locally as they drift along the potential gradients created by magnetic reconnection. Not all reconnection events are able to accelerate particles up to such high energies. The particles need to remain trapped for a sufficiently long time in a region with weak magnetic field, such as the diamagnetic cavity in the cusp, in order to gain large amounts of energy.


Figure 22: The four Cluster spacecraft crossing the northern cusp of Earth's magnetosphere (image credit: ESA/AOES Medialab)

Legend to Figure 22: The four spacecraft of ESA's Cluster mission are shown as they fly from the magnetosphere into the northern cusp, in the configuration they had on 14 February 2003. This was a very favorable crossing event to study the properties of high-energy particles in the cusp. Using data from this event, scientists have inferred that the particles are accelerated locally, within the cusp, as they cross regions characterized by different electric potential – a configuration shown to result from magnetic reconnection events for this case study.

• In 2012, the four Cluster spacecraft are in "nominal operation". The Cluster mission is extended up to end 2014 (Ref. 53). 37)

Measurement of cold plasma: Swedish researchers have developed a new method to measure cold plasma at high altitudes. It turns out there are significantly more cold, charged ions in Earth's upper altitudes than previously imagined. At these lofty elevations, storms of high-energy charged particles — space weather — roil the atmosphere, creating auroras, buffeting satellites, and sometimes wreaking havoc with electronic devices and electric grids on Earth. The new evidence of abundant cold (i.e. low-energy) ions may change our understanding of this tumultuous space weather and lead to more accurate forecasting of it, scientists say. The finding might also shed light on what's happening around other planets and moons — for instance, helping explain why the once robust atmosphere of Mars is so wispy today. 38) 39)

• Measurement and analysis of a bow shock event: In November 2011, a new study on data from the Cluster mission has revealed that the bow shock formed by the solar wind as it encounters Earth's magnetic field is remarkably thin: it measures only 17 km across. Thin astrophysical shocks such as this are candidate sites for early phases of particle acceleration. The finding thus sheds new light on the much debated issue of particle injection in the context of cosmic ray acceleration. 40)

The study is based on data gathered by the four Cluster spacecraft of ESA on January 9, 2005. On this occasion, the combination of a slowly moving shock and a favorable orientation of the magnetic field, which was aligned with the spacecraft spin axes, enabled data to be sampled with unprecedented time resolution – at intervals of 250 milliseconds, corresponding to one sixteenth of the time interval that a spacecraft needs to complete a full spin. The data show that, in the transition layer between the non-shocked and shocked regions of the plasma, half of the total heating undergone by electrons takes place on a scale of 17.3 km. - Steven J. Schwartz, Imperial College London, and colleagues used the Cluster data to estimate the thickness of the shock layer. This is important because the thinner a shock is, the more easily it can accelerate particles. 41)


Figure 23: Artist's impression of the four Cluster spacecraft flying through the thin layer of Earth's bow shock. The crossing, which took place on 9 January 2005, showed that the shock's width was only about 17 km across (image credit: ESA)


Figure 24: Schematic of the magnetic field strength and electron temperature in the plasma surrounding Earth's bow shock (image credit: Steven Schwartz, ICL)

Legend to Figure 24: This graph shows measurements performed with one of the four spacecraft of ESA's Cluster mission during a favorable crossing of Earth's bow shock that took place on 9 January 2005. The bow shock is a standing shock wave that forms when the solar wind encounters the magnetosphere of our planet. Shown in the graph are the intensity of the magnetic field (in black) and the electron temperature (in red) measured as this spacecraft was flying through the transition layer between the non-shocked and shocked regions of the plasma. The shock location is indicated at the center, and distances are relative to its location. - As the four spacecraft make the transition into the shocked region of the plasma, they record how the electrons experience a dramatic and abrupt rise in temperature over scales of only about 17 km. The rise in temperature follows closely the steep rise in the intensity of the magnetic field. Such a sharp transition is close to the limit set by wave dispersion and could hardly be any steeper, implying that the shock layer is as thin as it can be.

• The four Cluster spacecraft ended their long eclipse season in July 2011. During the summer, some of the spacecraft will fly at their lowest altitude since launch. At around 200–300 km, i.e. below the ISS, there are chances for ground-based observation of the spacecraft. In the next months, the spacecraft will target low-altitude regions including the inner plasmasphere and the auroral regions. 42)

A recent result detailed in situ observations of wave-particle interactions in Earth's magnetotail. Heating and acceleration of plasma when magnetic reconnection occurs is a very active area of research and is key to understanding solar activity in the form of CMEs and other astrophysical processes. Observations indicate that particle energization, seen also in solar flares, is carried out by a combination of reconnection and plasma jet interaction with the local magnetic field structure. This result highlights the key role of electron physics in reconnection. The observations show that wave generation strongly affects the electron dynamics, and plays a crucial role in the energy conversion chain during plasma jet braking. The key aspect of the result is the observation of persistent wave activity, which directly indicates the sustained pileup of the magnetic field. The results presented are of universal importance for solar and astrophysical environments.


Figure 25: Artist's view of the Cluster magnetic reconnection concept with jet braking and plasma heating (image credit: ESA) 43)

Legend to Figure 25: Cluster observations confirm that acceleration of energetic particles in Earth's magnetotail is caused by magnetic reconnection, triggering plasma jets (light blue jet tailward of the Cluster satellites) followed by betatron acceleration which heats and further accelerates these jets towards Earth.

• June 30, 2011: Using ingenuity and an unorthodox 'dirty hack', ESA has recovered the four-satellite Cluster mission from near loss. The drama began in March 2011, when a crucial science package stopped responding to commands – one of a mission controller's worst fears. 44) 45)

Among each satellite's 11 instruments, five comprise the WEC (Wave Experiment Consortium), which makes important measurements of electrical and magnetic fields. All four sensors must work together to make carefully orchestrated observations – the loss of any one could seriously affect the unique 'four-satellite science' delivered by the mission.

On March 5, 2011, the WEC package on Cluster's number 3 satellite, Samba, failed to switch on. ESA ground controllers at ESOC (European Space Operations Centre), in Darmstadt, Germany, immediately triggered a series of standard recovery procedures, none of which succeeded. - Even worse, no status information could be coaxed out of the instruments.

With no status data and no response from the instrument, the ground controller team suspected either that the device's five power switches were locked closed or a failure caused by an electrical short circuit, one of the most dangerous faults on any satellite.

Over the next several weeks, working closely with the satellites' builder, the WEC scientists and manufacturer, and other ESA teams, the Cluster control team diagnosed the problem, eventually making use of some onboard software that had been dormant since just after launch over 10 years ago. - The result ruled out a short circuit and pointed an accusing finger at the five power switches being locked in the 'closed' position.

Tests in 1995 had simulated what might happen if three of the five switches locked close, but no one ever considered how to recover from all five being locked – such a situation had not been deemed possible. - Armed with this information and a great deal of ingenuity, the team painstakingly designed a recovery procedure and tested it on one of Samba's functioning sister satellites.

The solution was based on a 'dirty hack' – jargon referring to any non-standard procedure – but no other option was available. On June 1, 2011, a series of commands was uplinked. To immense relief of the team, these flipped the power switches to 'on' and the recalcitrant WEC came back to life.

Cluster has since returned to normal operation and measures are being taken to prevent this failure from happening again.

• The Cluster constellation is operational in 2011. In fact, February 2011 marks the tenth anniversary of the start of the science phase of the four ESA Cluster satellites, in one of the most successful scientific missions ever launched. In this period, the ESA/NASA Cluster mission has revealed previously hidden interactions between the Sun and Earth. Its studies have uncovered secrets of the aurora and solar storms, and given us insight into fundamental processes occurring across the Universe. 46)

- During the course of the mission, the distance between the Cluster satellites has changed numerous times. Varying the size of the Cluster ‘constellation' has allowed Cluster to examine Earth's magnetosphere at different scales, targeting the tetrahedron in various regions around the orbit.

- In 2005, a new ‘asymmetric' flying formation allowed the satellites to make measurements of medium and large-scale phenomena simultaneously, transforming Cluster into the first ever ‘multiscale' mission. Such an orbital configuration facilitates study of the link between medium-scale kinetic processes of the plasma around Earth and the large-scale morphology of the magnetosphere.

- In one of the most complex maneuvers ever conducted by ESA to date, Cluster 1, 2 and 3 became separated by 10 000 km to form a triangular shape with Cluster 4 at 1000 km from Cluster 3 in a direction perpendicular to the large triangle. In 2007, Cluster 3 and 4 were orbiting just 17 km apart – the closest distance that two ESA spacecraft have achieved in routine operations. To date, these satellites have been commanded through around 800 orbital maneuvers – an enormous number in spacecraft navigation terms.


Figure 26: The inter-satellite separation during the mission, indicating target regions of the magnetosphere (image credit: ESA, Ref. 46)

Legend to Figure 26: The region high above the magnetic poles known as the cusp, the magnetic tail on the night side of Earth, the auroral zone and the solar wind. Since 2005 Cluster has made several multi-scale investigations, separating three satellites in a triangle by thousands of kilometers while having the fourth satellite at tens to hundreds of kilometers from this triangle.

- The spacecraft batteries are made of non-magnetic silver-cadmium to avoid interfering with Cluster's instruments. But over time, such batteries generate oxy-hydrogen, an explosive gas. To date, seven batteries have cracked across the four satellites, two of which were more like small explosions. Ground controllers saw the satellites lurch each time this happened. From 20 batteries, just seven remain (November 2010).
Engineers have devised ingenious workarounds to account for these battery issues and the normal reduction in electrical power as the solar panels degrade. The ESOC team has implemented creative scenarios for operations so that the satellites remain almost fully functional despite the loss of battery power. In particular, new strategies ensure the satellite health, even during long eclipses, and enable a fast restart of science measurements after a complete power-down (Ref. 46).

• Since December 2010, the four Cluster satellites are now deep into the long eclipse season, which will last until July 2011. During each orbit, for the duration of the eclipse (up to an hour), the satellites are fully powered down, waking up once they see the Sun again. These eclipse power-downs are now routine for Cluster. During the next few months, Cluster will be examining the dayside magnetosphere and the solar wind flying in a tetrahedral formation at scales of around 5000 km. 47) 48)

• In November 2010, ESA's Science Program Committee approved an extension of the Cluster mission for 2 years up to the end of 2012. 49)

• The four Cluster spacecraft and their instruments are operational in July 2010 (celebrating their 10th anniversary in orbit on July 16, 2010). During the past decade, Cluster's four satellites have provided extraordinary insights into the Sun-Earth interconnection providing a 3D picture of how the continuous ‘solar wind' of charged particles or plasma from the Sun affects our near-Earth space environment and its protective ‘magnetic bubble', known as the magnetosphere. 50) 51) 52)

On 1 September 2000, just a few weeks after launch, the four individual satellites of the Cluster mission began coordinated orbits, marking the formal start of formation flying. The observations have revealed a dramatic realm of invisible violence. Cluster has investigated how the solar wind penetrates near-Earth space and discovered that, under certain circumstances, magnetic whirlpools larger than the entire Earth bore into our magnetosphere, injecting their venomous particles. When these solar wind particles reach Earth's atmosphere, they trigger the sublime glow of the northern and southern auroras.

With the four satellites still in excellent condition, the mission has now been extended to the end of 2014 (pending a review in late 2012). 53)

• In July 2010, an ESA AO (Announcement of Opportunity) is soliciting special operation proposals for participation in the Guest Investigator (GI) Program of the Cluster extended mission. The aim of the GI Program is to open future spacecraft science operations to the scientific community. Proposals to exploit Cluster data along with other satellites data (e.g. THEMIS), or proposals for theoretical and/or modelling studies focused on the goals and objectives of the mission, are encouraged. Principal and co-investigators on experiments on the Cluster mission are also eligible to propose under this AO. The deadline of proposal submission is Oct. 1, 2010. 54)

• Cluster safely passed through its long eclipse season in October and November 2009, including a number of complete power-downs and restarts of the spacecraft. In the autumn, the apogee was lowered by 5000 km to improve data download volume. During winter, Cluster made the first plasma measurements in the auroral acceleration regions with four satellites and passed into the dayside magnetosphere to examine the magnetopause, magnetosheath and bow-shock. 55)

• The spacecraft and instruments are operational in 2009. The Cluster mission has been extended twice in the past, up to June 2009. In early Feb. 2009, ESA provided another mission extension until Dec. 31, 2009. The new extension will make it possible to study the auroral regions above Earth's poles and widen the investigations of the magnetosphere — its inner region in particular. 56)

Thanks to Cluster, scientists have reached an unprecedented understanding of the way solar activity affects the near-Earth environment. Cluster pioneered measurements of electric currents in space, revealed the nature of black aurorae, and discovered that plasma — a gas of charged particles surrounding Earth — makes ‘waves'.

• In the spring of 2009, ESA's Cluster mission revealed, for the first time, how turbulence develops in space just outside the Earth's magnetic environment. This result improves the understanding of turbulence, a key physical process by which energy throughout the Universe is transported from large scales at which it is input, to small scales where it is dissipated. 57)

The solar wind, when it reaches a magnetized planet, is first decelerated from supersonic to subsonic speed by a shock wave (called the bow shock), located in front of the magnetopause. The region between the bow shock and the magnetopause is called the magnetosheath. This region is one of the most turbulent environments of near-Earth space, making it an excellent laboratory in which to study turbulence. Characterizing the properties of the magnetic turbulence in this region is of prime importance to understand its role in fundamental processes such as energy dissipation or the acceleration of particles to high-energies.

The Cluster mission showed that extreme solar activity drastically compresses the magnetosphere and modifies the composition of ions in the near-Earth environment. A new model is needed to take these flare changes into consideration and to deduct how how these changes affect orbiting satellites, including the GPS system. - Under normal solar conditions, satellites orbit within the magnetosphere — the protective magnetic bubble carved out by Earth's magnetic field. But when solar activity increases, the picture changes significantly: the magnetosphere gets compressed and particles get energized, exposing satellites to higher doses of radiation that can perturb signal reception. This is why monitoring and forecasting its impact on near-Earth space is becoming increasingly critical to safeguard daily life on Earth. 58)

• Out of 19 successive eclipses only 12 could be run nominally. 59)

• The 4 Cluster spacecraft are providing a detailed three-dimensional map of the magnetosphere, with surprising results (observation of magnetic reconnection events).

• December 29, 2006 marked the 1000th orbit around Earth of the Cluster constellation. 60)

• On Feb. 10, 2005, the ESA Science Program Committee approved the extension of the Cluster mission, pushing back the end date from December 2005 to December 2009. This extension will allow the first measurements of space plasmas at both small and large scales simultaneously and the sampling of geospace regions never crossed before by four spacecraft flying in close formation. 61)

• In the fall of 2006, the S/C went through a long ecliptic season. During this period, S/C 1 (Rumba) had very weak batteries. The counteract this, ESOC defined a new mode of operation called "decoder only" where the computer and all other subsystems are switched off. This warm-up period lasted from Sept. 15-23, 2006. The other three S/C recorded data as usual between eclipses. 62)

• December 29, 2006, marked the 1000th orbit around the Earth of the four ESA satellites composing the Cluster mission. Launched in the summer 2000, these spacecraft are delivering a unique harvest of in-situ scientific data of the Earth environment, from 25 000 km to 125 000 km in altitude. 63)

• The batteries of the satellites are well beyond their design lives and are starting to fail - the power situation first became critical during the long eclipses in September 2006. The battery aboard one could not power the heaters or computer, so new options had to be developed to avoid dangerous low temperatures and to regain control after each eclipse.

During eclipses, each satellite is powered by five silver-cadmium batteries. In the early 1990's, when Cluster was designed, these were the only non-magnetic batteries available (as Cluster's instruments were intended to measure magnetic fields, the internal fields had to be minimized). Their short lifetime of typically 2.5 years is limited by the amount of cadmium, which is gradually dissolved by the aggressive electrolyte. Hence, a new strategy for heating the satellites was developed and validated. 64)

• The Cluster mission has been in its science operations phase since February 2001.

• On September 1, 2000, just a few weeks after launch, the four individual satellites of the Cluster mission began coordinated orbits, marking the formal start of formation flying.




The instrument complement remained identical to that of the original version of Cluster-I. Each of the four Cluster-II spacecraft carries an identical set of 11 scientific instruments.

A Wave Experiment Consortium (WEC) was formed to get maximum scientific return from the available spacecraft instruments. WEC comprises five coordinated experiments designed for measuring electric and magnetic fluctuations, and small-scale structures within critical layers in the Earth's magnetosphere. These WEC experiments are: STAFF, EFW, WHISPER, DWP, and WBD. 65) 66)


FGM (Fluxgate Magnetometer):

PI: A. Balogh, Imperial College, London, UK. Study of small-scale structures and processes in the Earth's environment. Objective: Provision of intercalibrated measurements of the magnetic field vector B at the four Cluster S/C. Identical instrumentation on all S/C (two triaxial fluxgate sensors and a data processing unit). Measurement of B wave from DC to 10 Hz, resolution => 6 pT. The magnetometers have eight possible operating ranges; of these, five are used on the Cluster magnetometers. The ranges were selected to provide good resolution in the solar wind (with expected field magnitudes between 3 and 30 nT), and up to the highest field values expected in the magnetosphere along the Cluster orbit (up to about 1,000 nT).

Range (nT)

Digital resolution (nT)

- 64 to + 63.992

7.813 x 10-3

- 256 to + 255.97

3.125 x 10-2

- 1024 to + 1023.9


- 4096 to + 4095.5


- 65536 to + 65528


Table 5: Operating ranges of the FGM instrument



Figure 27: View of the FGM instrument (image credit: ESA)


STAFF (Spatio-Temporal Analysis of Field Fluctuations):

PI: N. Cornilleau-Wehrlin, CRPE/CNET, France). Objectives: Study of wave-particle interaction in the region where the solar wind meets the Earth's magnetosphere. STAFF looks at waves (rapid variations in the magnetic fields), particularly in regions where the charged particles of the solar wind interact with the magnetosphere. Measurement of B wave from up to 10 Hz, compressed data up to 4 kHz, cross-correlator for <E, B>. The STAFF instrument, located at the end of the 5 m boom, consists of a three-axis search coil magnetometer (measurement up to 4 kHz), and a spectrum analyzer to perform the auto and cross correlations between electric and magnetic components on board each satellite. STAFF is one of the five complementary experiments which form the Wave Experiment Consortium (WEC). - The tetrahedral orbit configuration of the Cluster spacecraft permits the study of the frontiers between the solar wind and Earth's magnetosphere. 67) 68)


Figure 28: Illustration of the STAFF package (image credit: ESA)


EFW (Electric Fields and Waves):

PI: M. André, IRF-U (Swedish Institute of Space Physics), Uppsala, Sweden. Objectives: measurement of electric field and density fluctuations, determination of electron density and temperature, study of nonlinear processes that result in acceleration of the plasma, study of large-scale phenomena of data from all four S/C. The instrument consists of double probes, mounted on two pairs of wire booms, each 100 m tip-to-tip. Measurement of E wave from 10 Hz, compressed data up to 100 kHz, sensitivity < 50 nV/m (Hz)1/2. EFW measurement modes: 69) 70)

- Instantaneous spin plane components of the electric field vector, over a dynamic range of 0.1 - 700 mV/m, and with variable time resolution down to 0.1 ms.

- Low energy plasma density, over a dynamic range at least 1 to 100 cm-3

- Electric field and density fluctuations in double layers of small amplitude, over dynamic ranges of 0.1 to 50 mV/m for the fields, and 1 - 50% for the relative density fluctuations, time resolution of 0.1 ms on some occasions

- Waves, ranging from electrostatic ion cyclotron emissions having amplitudes as large as 60 mV/m at frequencies as low as 50 mHz, to lower hybrid emissions at several hundred Hz and with amplitudes as small as a few µV/m.

- Time delays between signals from up to four different antenna elements on the same S/C, with a time resolution of 25 µs on some occasions.

- S/C potential


Figure 29: Illustration of the EFW experiment, 4 units and electronic boxes (image credit: ESA)


WHISPER (Waves of High Frequency and Sounder for Probing of Density by Relaxation):

PI: P. M. E. Décréau, LPCE (Laboratoire de Physique et Chimie de l'Environnement), Orléans, France. Objectives: accurate measurement of total plasma density within the range from 0.2 - 80 cm-3 (prime objective), continuous survey of one electric component of plasma waves in the frequency range from 2 - 80 kHz with an accuracy of about 160 Hz (secondary objective).

WHISPER employs the method of relaxation sounding (using parts of the EFW wire booms). The analysis of density variations is performed via active sounding of plasma resonances (a radar technique). Brief radio pulses, sent out from two 50 m long wire antennas, trigger oscillations or 'echoes', which are detected after a short delay. Their frequencies reveal the particle concentration in the medium. In addition, Whisper monitors natural wave activity in the frequency range (2 to 80 kHz) covered by the sounder.

Expected measurement results:

- identification of regions in space and mass transport

- spatial extension and drift speed

- density fluctuations

- wave mode identification

- coldest component of the electron density

Passive measurements of natural plasma waves up to 400 kHz. WHISPER is one of the five complementary experiments which form the Cluster WEC (Wave Experiment Consortium).


Figure 30: Illustration of WHISPER (image credit: ESA)


WBD (Wide Band Data):

PI: D. A. Gurnett, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA, USA. Objectives: Study of E-field wave form in the Earth's magnetosphere. A wideband receiver system measures electric and magnetic fields over a frequency range from 25 Hz to 577 kHz. The Cluster wideband receiver is similar to the instruments flown on ISEE-1 (International Sun Earth Explorer-1) and DE-1. WBD makes use of the EFW sensors (two electric dipole antennas, two search coil magnetometers); conversion frequencies: 0, 125 kHz, 250 kHz, 500 kHz; frequency resolution: limited by FFT (75 Hz typical); time resolution: 10-20 ms (per FFT spectrum); The WBD measurements complement those of the other WEC instruments and also provide a unique new capability to perform very-long baseline interferometry (VLBI) measurements. - The wideband technique involves transmitting band-limited waveform data to a ground station using a high-rate data link (262 kbit/s R/T or 131 kbit/s in burst mode). 71)


Two electric-field components (Ey, Ez);
two magnetic-field components (Bx,By)

Conversion frequencies

0, 125 kHz, 250 kHz, 500 kHz

Bandpass filter ranges

1 kHz to 77 kHz; 50 Hz to 19 kHz; 25 Hz to 9.5 kHz

Frequency resolution

Determined by FFT (Fast Fourier Transform)

Time resolution

10-20 ms (per FFT spectrum)

Gain select

5 dB steps, 16 levels, dynamic range 75 dB, automatic ranging or set by command

A/D converter

1-bit, 4-bit, or 8-bit resolution for a selection of sample rates

Mass (flight models, measured)

1.67 kg

Power (flight models, measured)

1.57 W

Table 6: Specification of the WBD instrument


Figure 31: Illustration of the WBD instrument (image credit: University of Iowa)

DWP (Digital Wave Processor):

PI: H. Alleyne, University of Sheffield, UK. Objectives: Correlation of wave/particle phenomena and wave/particle interactions. DWP is the on-board control system (multiprocessor unit based on the use of transputers with parallel processing and re-allocatable tasks to provide a high-reliability system.) of all WEC instruments performing data compaction and compression, event selection, particle/wave correlation, and control of WHISPER.


Figure 32: Illustration of the DWP instrument (image credit: University of Sheffield)


EDI (Electron Drift Instrument):

PI: G. Paschmann, MPE, Garching, Germany). EDI is a collaborative effort between MPE, UNH (University of New Hampshire), UIA (University of Iowa), IWF (Institut für Weltraumforschung), Graz, Austria, and UCSD (University of California, San Diego). Objectives: accurate and highly sensitive measurements of the electric field. EDI measures the drift of a weak beam of test electrons which for certain emission directions return to the S/C after one gyration (the drift is related to the electric field and to the gradient in the magnetic field). EDI consists of two emitter/detector assemblies, each with a full view (FOV of 360º). Emission and tracking of two electron beams. 72)

EDI fires two weak beams of electrons 10 km or more into the space around each spacecraft. When properly aimed, the electrons eventually return to receivers on the opposite side of the spacecraft. The returning beams are affected by the strength of the electric field in space and by the gradient in the ambient magnetic field. From beam firing directions and electron travel times, scientists can determine the strength of the electric field. As a by-product, the magnetic field strength is also measured.


Figure 33: Illustration of the EDI instrument (image credit: ESA)


CIS (Cluster Ion Spectrometry) experiment:

PI: H. Rème, CESR (Centre d'Etudes Spatial des Rayonnement), Toulouse, France. The CIS experiment is a collaborative effort of many international institutions, under the principal responsibility of CESR (Toulouse, France). Objectives: Study of the dynamics of magnetized plasma structures in the vicinity of the Earth's magnetosphere (physics of the bow shock, the magnetopause boundary, the polar cusp, the geomagnetic tail, and the plasma sheet). CIS is a comprehensive ionic plasma spectrometry package on-board the four Cluster spacecraft capable of obtaining full 3-D ion distributions with good time resolution (one spacecraft spin) with mass per charge composition determination.

CIS consists of two instruments, CODIF and HIA to measure both the cold and hot ions from the solar wind, the magnetosheath, and the magnetosphere (including the ionosphere) with sufficient angular, energy, and mass resolution. 73)

CODIF (Composition and Distribution Functions) analyzer; energy range = 0.02 - 40 keV/q to measure the 3-D distribution of major ion species (H+, He2+, He+ , and O+). The instrument is a symmetrical hemispherical analyzer with RPA (Retarding Potential Analyzer) and TOF (Time-of-Flight) electronics, FOV = 360º x 8º; split geometric factor.

HIA (Hot Ion Analyzer) for high time resolution of the solar wind (energy range = 3 eV/q - 40 keV/q). The instrument is a symmetric quadri-spherical analyzer; FOV = 360º x 8º with high resolution. (≥ 2.8º).


Figure 34: The CODIF (left) and HIA instruments of CIS (image credit: MPE)


PEACE (Plasma Electron and Current Analyzer):

PI: A Fazakerley, MSSL (Mullard Space Science Laboratory), University College, London, UK. Objectives: Study of the 3-D velocity distribution of electrons in the vicinity of its host spacecraft. PEACE consists of two electron sensor devices. LEFA = Low Energy Electron Analyzer (energy range = 0 - 100 eV). The instrument is a spherical electrostatic analyzer with a FOV of 180º x 3.8º. HEFA (High Energy Electron Analyzer), energy range = 0.1 - 30 keV. The instrument is a troidal electrostatic analyzer with a FOV of 360º x 4.6º. 74)


Figure 35: The PEACE instrument (image credit: ESA)


RAPID (Research with Adaptive Particle Imaging Detectors):

PI: P. Daly, MPS (Max Planck Institute for Solar System Research), Lindau/Harz, Germany, formerly known as MPAe (Max Planck Institut für Aeronomie). Objectives: Study of suprathermal plasma distributions in the energy range from 20 - 400 keV and 2 keV/n - 1500 keV for electrons and ions, respectively. 75)

RAPID provides complete coverage of the unit sphere in phase space. It is made up of two instruments, the IIMS and IES.

IIMS (Imaging Ion Mass Spectrometer) for ion distribution. IIMS is a position-sensitive instrument with solid state detectors and TOF (Time-of-Flight) electronics. FOV= 3º x 180º

IES (Imaging Electron Spectrometer) for measuring energetic electrons. IES has a position-sensitive solid state detector. FOV = 17.5º x 180º.


Figure 36: Illustration of the RAPID instrument (image credit: MPE)


ASPOC (Active Spacecraft Potential Control):

PI: K. Torkar, IWF (Institut für Weltraumforschung), Graz, Austria. Objective: Control of the spacecraft charge potential to insure effective, complete measurement of the ambient plasma distribution functions. The basic approach involves the active emission of positive charges from the S/C sufficient to balance the excess of charge accumulating on the satellite by the environment (photo emission of electrons drives the S/C potential positive relative to the plasma potential).

The method employed is field ionization with a Liquid Metal Ion Source (LMIS) of the "solid needle" type. LMIS uses Indium as charged material. The instrument consists of an electronics box and two cylindrical emitter modules with five needles each. The released ions cancel out the electrical charge that the satellite acquires. The ion current is adjusted by using measurements made by other onboard instruments, which record the spacecraft's electrical potential (EFW and PEACE). 76)


Figure 37: Illustration of ASPOC (image credit: ESA)

The ASPOC instrument consists of two cylindrical modules that both contain four ion emitters, as well as an electronics box with the microprocessor unit and current supply unit including the high voltage and heating supply for the ion emitters. The ion emitters are of the liquid metal type, and use Indium as charge carriers. A small needle gets wetted with Indium and heated over 157ºC, such that the Indium liquefies. The Indium at the tip of the accreting liquidity cone gets ionized when a potential of several kilovolts between the needle and an external electrode is applied and creates an ion beam.

The instrument uses a total of eight emitters, distributed over two modules with separate high voltage supplies. Only one emitter is operated at a time. The others serve as backup units and to extend the operability, as the life cycle of an emitter is limited by the Indium content of its reservoir. In total the Indium content suffices for an operational span of 32,000 hours at 10 µA ion current. The mass of the instrument is 1.9 kg, the power consumption is up to 2.7 Watt.



Ground Segment:

Operations of four S/C are provided by two centers: ESA/ESOC in Darmstadt, Germany for mission operations, and JSOC (Joint Science Operations Center), located at the Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, Didcot, UK. The function of JSOC is the coordination of science operations. Its main task is to merge the input from the PI teams into a command schedule. In addition, JSOC monitors the health of the payload instruments and disseminates information of the mission.

RF communications: Science data are downlinked at a rate of 16.9 kbit/s real-time (105 kbit/s burst mode) or stored on one 2.25 Gbit solid-state recorder for replay (Note: the original two solid-state recorders were replaced by a single recorder of a new design). The S-band system operates at 2025-2110/2200-2290 MHz (up/down) at 10 W. The downlink data rate is variable from 2 to 262 kbit/s. Data from the four S/C is synchronized via a highly stable on-board clock. - The Villafranca ground station (Spain) of ESA is the prime station for all TT&C functions. Further support is provided by NASA's Deep Space Network (as well as other ground stations) during critical initial mission phases. About 1 GByte of science data per day is downlinked.

In the ground segment, the Cluster science data are available to the scientific community through CSDS (Cluster Science Data System). The CSDS consists of eight nationally funded and operated data centers. These are:

• Austrian Cluster Data Center, IWF, Graz (ASPOC)

• Chinese Cluster Data Center, Beijing (ASPOC)

• French Cluster Center, CNES, Toulouse (CIS, STAFF, WHISPER)

• German Cluster Data Center, MPE, Garching (EDI, RAPID)

• Scandinavian Data Center, KTH (Royal Institute of Technology), Stockholm (EFW)

• Hungarian Data Center, KFKI, Budapest

• UK Cluster Data Center, RAL, Didcot and QMW, London (DWP, FGM, PEACE)

• US Cluster Data Center, GSFC, Greenbelt, MD (WBD)


According to Ref. 21), the downlink is the major bottleneck for the scientific measurements in orbit. Only one ground station, Villafranca-1 (Spain), was dedicated for routine operations to Cluster during the first year. This allowed only 55% orbit coverage with normal mode measurements. Adding a second dedicated station, Maspalomas (Canary Islands), was added in 2002. This made continuous measurements possible including 1.5 hours per orbit of high resolution data. Simultaneous 4-point measurements need complete data sets from all 4 spacecraft. Therefore, at least 95% of all data measured simultaneously in orbit shall be delivered to the users.

In course of the mission a different set of ground station supported Cluster due to various reasons. Today, Cluster is mainly supported by the ground stations of ESA's Tracking Network (ESTRACK), the 15 m antennas at Maspalomas, Perth (Australia), Kourou (French Guiana), and Villafranca-2. Less frequently ESA's deep space antenna at New Norcia (Australia) is also used. The DSN support for the WBD (Wide Band Data) instrument was augmented by a station in Panka Ves (Czech Republic). Since the eclipse season in 2010 , DSN also provides valuable cross support for critical eclipse operations with stations at Canberra. In 2013 this cross support was extended to routine operations including support from Madrid and Goldstone.

The investment to provide a second ground station in 2002 was linked to the capability of the Cluster spacecraft to extend the mission by three more years. An analysis of the power situation was based on the solar array degradation in the first year. A proposed power/thermal strategy suggested that Cluster could provide a high science data volume up to 2006. This helped to get the mission extension approved up to end of 2005. Since then four more mission extensions have been approved.


1) ISTP Global GEOSPACE Science - Energy Transfer in Geospace, ESA/NASA/ISAS brochure, 1992

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8) The Cluster mission is covered in considerable detail in Space Science Reviews, Vol. 79, Jan. 1997, pp. 11-658.

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17) "Origin of high-latitude auroras revealed," ESA, Dec. 18, 2014, URL:

18) R. C. Fear1, S. E. Milan, R. Maggiolo, A. N. Fazakerley, I. Dandouras, S. B. Mende, "Direct observation of closed magnetic flux trapped in the high-latitude magnetosphere," Science, 19 December 2014, Vol. 346, No. 6216, pp. 1506-1510, DOI: 10.1126/science.1257377

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21) Jürgen Volpp, Detlef Sieg, "The Cluster Mission after 13 years — operations beyond its design limits," SpaceOps 2014, 13th International Conference on Space Operations, Pasadena, CA, USA, May 5-9, 2014, paper: AIAA 2014-1885

22) Nikolai Tsyganenko, Philippe Escoubet, "Cluster helps to model Earth's mysterious magnetosphere," ESA, May 7, 2014, URL:

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24) "Cluster takes a tilt at radio wave sources," ESA, Nov. 26, 2013, URL:

25) "ESA's Cluster Satellites in closest-ever 'Dance in Space'," ESA, Sept. 20, 2013, URL:

26) F. Darrouzet, V. Pierrard, S. Benck, G. Lointier, J. Cabrera, K. Borremans, N. Yu Ganushkina, J. De Keyser, "Links between the plasmapause and the radiation belt boundaries as observed by the instruments CIS, RAPID, and WHISPER onboard Cluster," Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, Volume 118, Issue 7, pp: 4176–4188, July 2013, DOI: 10.1002/jgra.50239

27) "Cluster shows Plasmasphere interacting with Van Allen Belts," ESA, Sept. 10, 2013, URL:

28) "ESA Science Missions continue in overtime," ESA, June 20, 2013, URL:

29) "Cluster hears the heartbeat of magnetic reconnection," ESA, May 2, 2013, URL:

30) Henrik Viberg, Yuri V. Khotyaintsev, A. Vaivads, M. André, J. S. Pickett, "Mapping HF waves in the reconnection diffusion region," Geophysical Research Letters, Vol. 40, Issue 6, pp: 1032–1037, 28 March 2013, DOI: 10.1002/grl.50227

31) C. Philippe Escoubet, "ESA Heliophysics missions," Proceedings of the ILWS (International Living with a Star) Tenth Anniversary Symposium, Vienna, Austria, Feb. 12-14, 2013, URL:

32) Jinbin Cao, Yuduan Ma, George Parks, Henri Reme, Iannis Dandouras, Tielong Zhang, "Kinetic analysis of the energy transport of bursty bulk flows in the plasma sheet", Journal of Geophysical Research: Space Physics, Vol. 118, Issue 1, Jan. 2013, pp. 313-320, doi: 10.1029/2012JA018351

33) Jinbin Cao, Geore Parks, Iannis Dandrouras, Matt Taylor, "Cluster finds source of aurora energy boost," ESA, April 10, 2013, URL:

34) "Origin of particle acceleration in cusps of Earth's magnetosphere uncovered," ESA, June 7, 2012, URL:

35) Katariina Nykyri, Eric Adamson, Antonius Otto, C. Philippe Escoubet, Matt Taylor, "On the origin of high-energy particles in the cusp diamagnetic cavity," 2012, Journal of Atmospheric and Solar-Terrestrial Physics, in press

36) "Cluster looks into waves in the magnetosphere's thin boundaries," ESA, Aug. 1, 2012, URL:

37) "Cluster II operations," URL:

38) Mats André, Christopher M. Cully, "Low-energy ions: A previously hidden solar system particle population, Geophysical Research Letters, 2011, doi:10.1029/2011GL050242

39) "Elusive matter found to be abundant far above Earth," AGU Release No. 12-02, Jan. 24, 2012, URL:

40) "Cluster reveals Earth's bow shock is remarkably thin," ESA, Nov. 16, 2011, URL:

41) S. Schwartz, Edmund Henley, Jeremy Mitchell, Vladimir Krasnoselskikh, "Electron Temperature Gradient Scale at Collisionless Shocks", Physical Review Letters, Vol. 107, Nov. 14, 2011, 215002, DOI: 10.1103/PhysRevLett.107.215002

42) "Programmes in Progress: Cluster, Status end of July 2011, " ESA Bulletin No. 147, August, 2011, p. 68

43) "Cluster observes jet braking and plasma heating," ESA, July 4, 2011, URL:

44) "'Dirty hack' restores Cluster mission from near loss," ESA, June 30, 2011, URL:

45) "Cluster rescue," Astrium, Oct. 26, 2011, URL:

46) Matt Taylor, Arnaud Masson, Philippe Escoubet, Harri Laakso, Jürgen Volpp, Mike Hapgood, "The Legendary Cluster Quartet, Celebrating ten years flying in formation," ESA Bulletin, No 145, February 2011, pp. 47-57

47) "Cluster," ESA Bulletin, No 145, Feb. 2011, p. 75


49) "Europe maintains its presence on the final frontier," Nov. 22, 2010, URL:

50) "Cluster's decade of discovery," ESA, July 16, 2010, URL:

51) "Ten years flying in formation: The legendary Cluster quartet," ESA, August 27, 2010, URL:

52) "Cluster turns the invisible into the visible," ESA, Sept. 1, 2010, URL:

53) "Europe maintains its presence on the final frontier," ESA, Nov. 22, 2010, URL:

54) "Announcement of Opportunity for Cluster Guest Investigator," ESA, July 8, 2010, URL:

55) Information extracted from ESA Bulletin Nr. 141, Feb. 2010, p. 64 -- under the heading: "Programs in Progress: Status at end December 2009,"

56) "ESA extends missions studying Mars, Venus and Earth's magnetosphere," Feb. 10, 2009, URL:

57) "Cluster's insight into space turbulence," ESA, March 25, 2009, URL:

58) Philippe Escoubet, "Watching solar activity muddle Earth's magnetic field," April 29, 2009, ESA, URL:



61) H. Laakso, P. Escoubet, H. Opgenoorth, J. Volpp, S. Pallaschke, M. Hapgood, "Cluster - A microscope and a telescope for studying space plasmas," ESA Bulletin, No 121, Feb. 2005, pp. 10-17

62) ESA Bulletin, No 128, November 2006, p. 80


64) J. Volpp, J. Godfrey, S. Foley, S. Sangiorgi, P. Appel, M. Pietras, P. Escoubet, H. Fiebrich, M. Schautz, B. Lehmann, "Sleeping Satellites - Nursing Cluster through Critical Eclipses," ESA Bulletin No 129, Feb. 2007, URL:

65) C. P. Escoubet, C. T. Russell, R. Schmidt [editors], "The Cluster and Phoenix Missions," published in a special Cluster issue of Space Science Reviews, Vol. 79, No. 1-2, 1997, Kluver

66) "The Cluster Mission - Scientific and Technical Aspects of the Instruments," ESA SP-1103, ISSN 0379-6566, Oct. 1988

67) N. Cornilleau-Wehrlin, P. Chauveau, S. Louis, A. Meyer, J. M. Nappa, S. Perraut, et al., "The Cluster STAFF experiment (Spatio Temporal Analysis of Field Fluctuations Experiment)," Space Science Reviews, Vol. 79, pp. 107-136, 1997

68) M. Parrot, O. Santolik, N. Cornilleau-Wehrlin, M. Maksimovic, C. Harvis, "Propagation characteristics of electromagnetic waves recorded by the four Cluster satellites," International Symposium PLASMA-2001"Research and Applications of Plasmas" Warsaw, Poland, Sep. 19-21, 2001

69) M. André, R. Behlke, J.-E. Wahlund, A. Vaivads, A.-I. Eriksson, A. Tjulin, T. D. Carozzi, C. Cully, G. Gustafsson, D. Sundkvist, Y. Khotyaintsev, N. Cornilleau-Wehrlin, L. Rezeau, M. Maksimovic, E. Lucek, A. Balogh, M. Dunlop, P.-A. Lindqvist, F. Mozer, A. Pedersen, A. Fazakerley, "Multi-spacecraft observations of broadband waves near the lower hybrid frequency at the Earthward edge of the magnetopause," Annales Geophysicae (Special issue: First Cluster results), Vol. 19, No. 6, 2001, pp.1471-1481,

70) G. Gustafsson, L. Ahlen, A.-I. Eriksson, H. Gunnarsson, A. Lundgren, H. Thomas, P Berg, P. Harvey, K. Khyunge, "The electric field and wave experiment on Cluster ," XXVI EGS (European Geophysical Society) General Assembly, Nice, March 25-30, 2001, Space instrumentation, Geophysical Research Abstracts, Vol. 3, 2001

71) D. A. Gurnett, R. L. Huff, D. L. Kirchner, "The Wideband Plasma Wave Investigation," Space Science Reviews, Vol. 79, pp. 195-208,, 1997;

72) "Electron Drift Instrument (EDI)," URL:

73) H. Rème, C. Aoustin, J. M. Bosqued, I. Dandouras, E. Möbius,B. Klecker, C. W. Carlson, V. Formisano, A. Korth, M. McCarthy, L. Eliasson, E. G. Shelley, C. P. Escoubet, et al., "First Multispacecraft Ion Measurements in and near the Earth's Magnetosphere with the Identical Cluster Ion Spectrometry (CIS) Experiment," Annales Geophysicae (Special issue: First Cluster results), Vol. 19, No. 6, 2001


75) Joint RAPID/PEACE Team Meeting, Coseners House, Abingdon, UK, Sept. 5-7, 2007, URL:

76) K. Torkara, Corresponding Author Contact Information, E-mail The Corresponding Author, M. Fehringerb, C. P. Escoubetb, M. Andréc, A. Pedersend, K. R. Svenese, P. M. E. Décréau, "Analysis of Cluster spacecraft potential during active control," Advances in Space Research, Vol. 36, Issue 10, 2005, pp. 1922-1927

The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: "Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors" (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (

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