Cluster (Four Spacecraft Constellation in Concert with SOHO)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.
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.
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.
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).
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
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).
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.
• June 2, 2022: One solar stormy day in November 2018, 13 spacecraft including ESA's Cluster mission were in the right place at the right time to spot a process that has never been seen in its entirety before. Their observations explain how vortices at the edge of Earth's magnetosphere can cause auroral beads to dot the sky a hundred thousand kilometres below. 9)
- This connection between auroral beads appearing on Earth's ‘dayside' (or Sun-facing side) and the vortices confirms a theory about how these unique auroras – known as beads because they look like a string of pearls hung across the sky – form. As some spacecraft observed the vortices themselves, others saw that a stream of charged particles used the vortices as access points to tunnel down towards Earth's surface, causing the sky to glow.
- The magnetosphere is Earth's defence against the charged particles and radiation blasted in our direction by the Sun (also known as the solar wind). This defence takes the form of a giant magnetic bubble in the shape of a shield facing the Sun. On 6 November 2018, 12 spacecraft were all located close to the magnetopause – the thin boundary at the outer edge of the magnetosphere – on the night side of Earth, where the magnetosphere stretches out into a tail.
- Among the 12 spacecraft located close to the magnetosphere were the four that make up ESA's Cluster mission, as well as NASA's four Magnetospheric Multiscale (MMS) spacecraft and three Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms (THEMIS) spacecraft, and JAXA's Geotail. In addition, a US Defence Meteorological Satellite Program (DMSP) satellite observed the auroral beads from close to Earth's surface.
- "This discovery shows that the Cluster spacecraft are part of a ‘magnetospheric orchestra' of missions that together enable extra science that is not possible to achieve with each mission individually," explains Philippe Escoubet, ESA's Cluster project scientist.
- The vortices – which themselves were originally detected by Cluster – are formed when the solar wind blows past the magnetopause. Just as wind on Earth can whip up oceans and clouds, the solar wind can roll up the magnetopause into giant waves comprised of whirlpool-like vortices.
- When a vortex is at the ‘goldilocks' size – not too big, but not too small – electrons from the solar wind swirl around its centre, before entering the magnetosphere, travelling towards and reaching Earth's upper atmosphere. There, the electrons collide with hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, causing them to glow and form an auroral bead in the sky. These round beads – one for each vortex – appear in groups that follow each other across the sky. This is in contrast to ‘normal' aurora which are flatter, more elongated and not so well organised.
- One solar stormy day in November 2018, 13 spacecraft including ESA's Cluster mission were in the right place at the right time to spot a process that has never been seen in its entirety before. Their observations explain how vortices at the edge of Earth's magnetosphere can cause auroral beads to dot the sky a hundred thousand kilometres below (Figure 11):
1) The solar wind 'blows' across the magnetopause, rolling it up into giant whirlpool-like vortices
2) Electrons enter the magnetosphere through the vortices and travel down towards the upper atmosphere
3) In the upper atmosphere, electrons collide with hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen, causing auroral beads to glow in the sky.
- "It's great to use multi-satellite missions to make connections between dynamics at the edge of the magnetosphere and what we see in the ionosphere far below," says Steven Petrinec, lead author of the study, which was recently published in Frontiers in Astronomy and Space Science. "Due to the scarcity of observations and sampling locations within the magnetosphere, it is important to take full advantage of multiple mission observations whenever possible to understand the connections between different processes within the large and complex system." 10)
- Since Cluster launched on 16 July 2000, it has revealed a plethora of interesting details about the magnetosphere and its interaction with the solar wind. By making the most detailed investigation yet into how the Sun and Earth interact, Cluster is helping us prepare for the effects of sudden bursts of solar energy here on Earth.
- Philippe continues: "Cluster has been operating for almost 22 years now. In the beginning, it was one of the only missions observing the magnetosphere, so we were mainly comparing the four spacecraft with each other. But nowadays we can compare their data with those from other missions, such as MMS and THEMIS."
- This research demonstrates the importance of multiple different spacecraft, each with their own complement of scientific instruments, monitoring the same events from different vantage points.
- Simon Wing, a co-author of the study, notes: "This study also highlights the importance of connecting these multi-spacecraft observations with theory. In this case, using the multi-point observations at the magnetopause, the theory is able to predict the dimension of the auroral beads observed by the DMSP satellites in the upper atmosphere."
- Steven, who works on NASA's MMS mission, adds: "Philippe and I make sure that we get Cluster and MMS working together as closely as possible. For example, Philippe always sends me information about when the two will be physically close, so we can ensure that all the spacecraft are working optimally together when they are monitoring the same region of the magnetosphere."
• August 7, 2020: Despite a nominal lifetime of two years, ESA's Cluster is now entering its third decade in space. This unique four-spacecraft mission has been revealing the secrets of Earth's magnetic environment since 2000 and, with 20 years of observations under its belt, is still enabling new discoveries as it explores our planet's relationship with the Sun. 11)
- As the only planet known to host life, Earth occupies a truly unique place in the Solar System. The Cluster mission, launched in the summer of 2000, was designed and built to study perhaps the one main thing that makes Earth a unique habitable world where life can thrive. This one life-enabling thing is Earth's powerful magnetosphere, which protects the planet from the bombardment by cosmic particles but also interacts with them, creating spectacular phenomena, such as polar lights.
- Earth's magnetosphere, a tear drop-shaped region that begins some 65,000 km away from the planet on the day side and extends up to 6,300,000 km on the night side, is a result of the interaction between the planet's magnetic field, generated by the motions of its molten metal core, and the solar wind. Cluster is the first mission to have studied, modelled and three-dimensionally mapped this region and the processes within it in detail. By doing so, it helped to advance our understanding of space weather phenomena, which arise from the interplay between the magnetosphere and the energetic particles forming the solar wind. These phenomena can damage not only living organisms, but also electronic equipment, whether on the ground or in orbit.
- The Cluster mission comprises four spacecraft flying in a pyramid-like formation on an elliptical polar orbit. The four spacecraft, called Rumba, Salsa, Samba and Tango, each carrying the same payload of 11 advanced instruments, were dispatched to orbit with two rocket launches on 16 July and 9 August 2000.
- Although the mission has become an enormous success, having enabled numerous scientific breakthroughs, it's early days didn't go off without a hitch. An under-performance of the first stage of the Soyuz launcher left Rumba and Tango in an incorrect orbit, forcing them to rely on their own propulsion, as well as the Fregat upper stage of Soyuz, to get to the right position to join Salsa and Samba. The mishap followed the failed launch of the original Cluster I quartet in 1996.
- "ESA was a bit worried 20 years ago, during the launch of the second pair of spacecraft," admits Philippe Escoubet, Cluster Project Scientist at ESA "Ever since then, the mission has made huge progress, and it is far from finished."
- Over the past two decades, Cluster observations have uncovered details about the processes in the magnetosphere, revealed how the atmosphere supports life, and provided essential insights into space weather needed to enable safe satellite communications and space or air travel.
- While most missions exploring Earth's magnetic phenomena focus on the equator where many electric currents flow, the Cluster quartet circles the Earth in a polar orbit, which allows it to pass periodically above both Earth's poles. The polar regions are magnetically extremely dynamic. Solar wind in this area can penetrate deeper into Earth's upper atmosphere through the polar cusps, funnel-like openings in the magnetosphere above the poles, giving rise to the spectacular auroras.
- Cluster's ability to observe higher latitudes than other missions made the mission a key player in forming a global magnetospheric map.
- One element of this was accurately mapping the position and extent of so-called cold plasma (slow-moving charged particles) around Earth in three dimensions. Such plasma – which Cluster found to, surprisingly, dominate the magnetosphere's volume up to 70% of the time – is thought to play a key role in how stormy space weather affects our planet. Cluster has also studied how the inner parts of Earth's magnetosphere work to replenish other parts with fresh plasma, observing not only sporadic plumes that push plasma outwards, but also a steady atmospheric leak of almost 90 thousand kilograms of material per day.
20 years of discovery
- Through its mapping of Earth's magnetic field, and comparison of this to Mars' lackluster present-day magnetism, Cluster has reaffirmed the importance of our magnetosphere in shielding us from the solar wind.
- Cluster has revealed more about the dynamics within the magnetotail, the part of the magnetosphere extending ‘behind' our planet away from the Sun. The mission identified that the magnetic field in this region oscillates in amplitude due to internal ‘kink-like' waves, and solved a long-standing mystery by determining that the phenomenon of ‘equatorial noise' (noisy plasma waves found near the equatorial plane of Earth's magnetic field) is generated by protons.
- By investigating the spatial characteristics of the outer region of the magnetosphere, Cluster has brought a deeper understanding of how solar wind particles can penetrate our magnetic ‘shield'. The solar wind is a stream of charged particles flooding out into space from the Sun, moving at speeds of up to 2000 km/hour. Cluster identified tiny swirls of turbulence that affect how energy (heat) is distributed throughout this wind, and discovered that, while it protects us from incoming particles, our magnetosphere is quite porous and sieve-like, allowing super-heated solar wind particles to drill through.
- By collaborating with other missions, Cluster has helped reveal the workings of high-latitude ‘theta' auroras and less familiar ‘black auroras'[TP1] , enabling a detailed understanding of how different regions of space exchange particles. The mission also discovered the origin of so-called ‘killer electrons', energetic particles in Earth's outer belt of radiation that can cause havoc for satellites, by observing this process first-hand. Cluster found these electrons to arise as solar storm-related shock waves compress Earth's magnetic field lines, resulting in these lines vibrating and accelerating electrons to high, and dangerous, speeds.
- Cluster has investigated the dynamics of a process known as magnetic reconnection, providing the first in situ observations of magnetic field lines breaking and reforming – a finding that required multiple simultaneous observations, as only Cluster could provide at the time. Cluster data also showed that energy is released in unexpected ways during reconnection events, helping scientists to build a fuller understanding of plasma dynamics.
- Space weather and geomagnetic storms, phenomena driven by Earth's relationship with the Sun, have been a topic of focus for Cluster. The mission has modelled Earth's magnetic field at both low and high altitudes, and identified the complex dynamics at play in the solar wind itself, with the goal of enabling more informed and accurate ‘space weather forecasting'. Late last year, by analyzing Cluster's comprehensive Science Archive, scientists were also able to release the eerie ‘song' emitted by Earth when it is hit by a solar storm, created by magnetic field waves.
A treasure trove of data
- Across its many years of operation, Cluster has amassed an unprecedented repository of data about Earth's environment. In fact, by drawing on 18 years of this data, scientists recently found that iron is widely, and surprisingly, distributed throughout our planet's vicinity, demonstrating the enduring power of Cluster in facilitating novel scientific discovery.
- "Having such a long baseline of data has enabled a number of truly ground-breaking findings," adds Arnaud Masson, Deputy Project Scientist for the Cluster mission at ESA. "By continually monitoring and recording the dynamics and properties of Earth's magnetosphere over two decades, Cluster has created brand new opportunities for scientists to spot new or longer-term trends on differing spatial and temporal scales."
- Cluster, along with other ESA spacecraft, is also paving the way for forthcoming missions such as the European-Chinese Solar wind-Magnetosphere-Ionosphere Link Explorer (SMILE), which is scheduled for launch in 2023. SMILE will dig deeper into the Sun-Earth connection, and will build upon the remarkable work of Cluster to reveal even more about the complex and intriguing magnetic environment surrounding our planet.
- "For two decades now, Cluster has been an exciting and truly cutting-edge mission, sending back all manner of new information about the Universe around us," says Philippe. "Thanks to its unique design, long lifetime, and advanced capabilities, Cluster has unlocked a wealth of secrets about the environment around Earth. Cluster is still going strong, and will continue to help us characterize the phenomena we see around us for – hopefully! – years to come."
• November 18, 2019: Data from ESA's Cluster mission has provided a recording of the eerie ‘song' that Earth sings when it is hit by a solar storm. 12)
- The song comes from waves that are generated in the Earth's magnetic field by the collision of the storm. The storm itself is the eruption of electrically charged particles from the Sun's atmosphere.
- A team led by Lucile Turc, a former ESA research fellow who is now based at the University of Helsinki, Finland, made the discovery after analyzing data from the Cluster Science Archive. The archive provides access to all data obtained during Cluster's ongoing mission over almost two decades.
- Cluster consists of four spacecraft that orbit Earth in formation, investigating our planet's magnetic environment and its interaction with the solar wind – a constant flow of particles released by the Sun into the Solar System.
- As part of their orbits, the Cluster spacecraft repeatedly fly through the foreshock, which is the first region that particles encounter when a solar storm hits our planet. The team found that in the early part of the mission, from 2001 to 2005, the spacecraft flew through six such collisions, recording the waves that were generated.
- The new analysis shows that, during the collision, the foreshock is driven to release magnetic waves that are much more complex than first thought.
- "Our study reveals that solar storms profoundly modify the foreshock region," says Lucile.
- When the frequencies of these magnetic waves are transformed into audible signals, they give rise to an uncanny song that might recall more the sound effects of a science fiction movie than a natural phenomenon.
- In quiet times, when no solar storm is striking the Earth, the song is lower in pitch and less complex, with one single frequency dominating the oscillation. When a solar storm hits, the frequency of the wave is roughly doubled, with the precise frequency of the resulting waves being dependent on the strength of the magnetic field in the storm.
- "It's like the storm is changing the tuning of the foreshock," explains Lucile.
- And it doesn't stop there because not only does the frequency of the wave change but it also becomes much more complicated than the single frequency present in quiet times. Once the storm hits the foreshock, the wave breaks into a complex network of different, higher frequencies.
- Computer simulations of the foreshock, performed using a model called Vlasiator, which is being developed at the University of Helsinki, demonstrate the intricate wave pattern that appears during solar storms.
- The changes in the foreshock have the power to affect the way the solar storm is propagated down to the Earth's surface. Although it is still an open question exactly how this process works, it is clear that the energy generated by waves in the foreshock cannot escape back into space, as the waves are pushed towards Earth by the incoming solar storm.
- Before they reach our atmosphere, however, the waves encounter another barrier, the bow shock, which is the magnetic region of space that slows down solar wind particles before they collide with Earth's magnetic field. The collision of the magnetic waves modifies the behavior of the bow shock, possibly changing the way it processes the energy of the incoming solar storm.
- Behind the bow shock, the magnetic fields of Earth start to resonate at the frequency of the waves and this contributes to transmit the magnetic disturbance all the way to the ground. It is a fast process, taking around ten minutes from the wave being generated at the foreshock to its energy reaching the ground.
- Lucile and colleagues are now working to understand exactly how these complex waves are generated. - "We always expected a change in frequency but not the level of complexity in the wave," she adds.
- Solar storms are a part of space weather. While the solar wind is always blowing, explosive releases of energy close to the Sun's surface generate turbulence and gusts that eventually give rise to solar storms.
- Understanding space weather has become increasingly important to society because of the damaging effects solar storms can have on sensitive electronics and technology on ground and in space. It is now more important than ever that we understand how space weather disturbances such as solar storms propagate through the Solar System and down to Earth, and ESA's upcoming Solar Orbiter mission, scheduled for launch in February 2020, will greatly contribute to these investigations.
- This new scientific study based on the long-lived Cluster mission provides another detail in that knowledge but it also has a larger role to play in our understanding of the Universe. Magnetic fields are ubiquitous and so the kind of complex interaction seen in Earth's foreshock may take place in a variety of cosmic environments, including exoplanets orbiting close to their parent star, as they would be immersed in intense magnetic fields.
- "This is an excellent example of how Cluster continues to extend our knowledge of the Sun-Earth connection, even years after the original data was obtained," says Philippe Escoubet, ESA Project Scientist for Cluster. "The results take us deeper into the details of fundamental magnetic interactions that take place across the Universe."
• February 28, 2019: Using unprecedented in-situ data from ESA's Cluster mission, scientists have shed light on the ever-changing nature of Earth's shield against cosmic radiation, its bow shock, revealing how this particle accelerator transfers and redistributes energy throughout space. 13)
Legend to Figure 20: Clockwise from top left, the four framed images on the left show the Cat's Eye Nebula (NGC 6543), a complex planetary nebula comprising intricate, concentric shells of gas and high-speed jets; a hypersonic shock wave in the star-forming region of the Orion Nebula; the remnant of a once-massive star, a supernova, known as SN 1987A, and one of the brightest exploding stars spotted in the past four centuries; and a bow shock around a young star named LL Ori, located in the Great Nebula in Orion. All of these phenomena, observed by the NASA/ESA Hubble Space Telescope, are sculpted by fast outpourings of material colliding with the surrounding medium, creating complicated, detailed structures in space.
The illustration on the right depicts the bow shock around Earth, our planet's shield against cosmic radiation and a giant particle accelerator that transfers and redistributes energy throughout space. Shocks are known to be very efficient particle accelerators, and potentially responsible for creating some of the most energetic particles in the Universe.
Using data from ESA's Cluster mission, scientists have revealed the mechanisms at play when this shock transfers energy from one type to another, finding direct evidence of small-scale structures within Earth's magnetic field that are key in helping waves of plasma to 'break'.
- The new study used observations from two of the Cluster mission's four spacecraft, which flew in tight formation through Earth's bow shock, sitting just 7 kilometers apart.
- The data were gathered on 24 January 2015 at a distance of 90,000 km from Earth, roughly a quarter of the way to the Moon, and reveal properties of the bow shock that were previously unclear due to the lack of such closely spaced in-situ measurements.
- When a supersonic flow encounters an obstacle, a shock forms. This is seen often in the Universe around stars, supernova remnants, comets, and planets – including our own. Shocks are known to be very efficient particle accelerators, and potentially responsible for creating some of the most energetic particles in the Universe.
- The shock around the Earth, known as the bow shock, is our first line of defence against particles flooding inwards from the cosmos, and our nearest test-bed to study the dynamics of plasma shocks. It exists due to the high, supersonic speeds of solar wind particles, which create a phenomenon somewhat akin to the shock wave formed when a plane breaks the sound speed barrier.
- The new study, published today in Science Advances, reveals the mechanisms at play when this shock transfers energy from one type to another. 14)
- "Earth's bow shock is a natural and ideal shock laboratory," says lead author Andrew Dimmock of the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in Uppsala, Sweden. "Thanks to missions like Cluster, we are able to place multiple spacecraft within and around it, covering scales from hundreds to only a few kilometers. This means we can pick apart how the shock changes in space and over time, something that's crucial when characterizing a shock of this type."
Legend to Figure 21: The illustration on the right depicts this bow shock. Such shocks, observed across the cosmos, are known to be very efficient particle accelerators, and potentially responsible for creating some of the most energetic particles in the Universe.
The new study found direct evidence of small-scale structures within Earth's magnetic field that are key in helping waves of plasma to 'break'. These waves behave somewhat like a wave in the sea: as a wave approaches the beach, it seems to grow in size as the depth decreases, until it breaks. This is because the crest of the wave moves faster than the trough, causing it to fold over and break. This kind of 'breaking' also occurs – albeit in a more complex way – for waves of plasma, redistributing energy in the process.
The inset in the upper left shows an artist's impression of the four Cluster spacecraft, as two of them (Cluster 3 and Cluster 4) took measurements within a particularly thin and variable part of the shock known as the shock ramp on 24 January 2015. The two spacecraft were sitting just 7 km apart, taking in-situ measurements at a never-before-achieved close separation.
The graph to the lower left relays the two sets of measurements of the magnetic field – one plotted in red (Cluster 3) and one in white (Cluster 4). Differences in the measured field provide evidence that small-scale magnetic field structures exist within the broader extent of the bow shock. These small structures are key in facilitating the breaking of plasma waves within the shock, and thus the transfer of energy, in this portion of Earth's magnetic environment.
- There are several types of shock, defined by the ways in which they transfer kinetic energy into other kinds of energy. In Earth's atmosphere, kinetic energy is transformed into heat as particles collide with one another – but the vast distances at play at our planet's bow shock mean that particle collisions cannot play such a role in energy transfer there, as they are simply too far apart.
- This type of shock is thus known as a collisionless shock. Such shocks can exist across a vast range of scales, from millimeters up to the size of a galaxy cluster, and instead transfer energy via processes involving plasma waves and electric and magnetic fields.
- "As well as being collisionless, Earth's bow shock can also be non-stationary," adds co-author Michael Balikhin of the University of Sheffield, UK. In a way, it behaves like a wave in the sea: as a wave approaches the beach, it seems to grow in size as the depth decreases, until it breaks – this is because the crest of the wave moves faster than the trough, causing it to fold over and break. This kind of 'breaking' occurs for waves of plasma, too, although the physics is somewhat more complicated."
- To investigate in detail the physical scales at which this wave breaking is initiated – something which was previously unknown – the researchers solicited a special campaign in which two of the four Cluster probes were moved to an unprecedentedly close separation of less than 7 km, gathering high-resolution data from within the shock itself.
- Analyzing the data, the team found that the measurements of the magnetic field obtained by the two Cluster spacecraft differed significantly. This direct evidence that small-scale magnetic field structures exist within the broader extent of the bow shock indicate that they are key in facilitating the breaking of plasma waves, and thus the transfer of energy, in this portion of the magnetosphere.
- With sizes of a few kilometers, similar to the scales at which electrons rotate around the magnetic field lines, these structures are located in a particularly thin and variable part of the shock, where the properties of the constituent plasma and surrounding fields can change most drastically.
- "This part of the bow shock is known as the shock ramp, and can be as thin as a few kilometers – a finding that was also based on Cluster data a few years back," says co-author Philippe Escoubet, who is also ESA project scientist for the Cluster mission.
- Launched in 2000, Cluster's four spacecraft fly in formation around the Earth, making it the first space mission able to study, in three dimensions, the physical processes occurring within and in the near vicinity of the Earth's magnetic environment.
- "This kind of study really shows the importance of Cluster as a mission," adds Escoubet. "By achieving incredibly small spacecraft separations – seven kilometers as used in this study and even smaller, down to just three kilometers – Cluster is allowing us to probe our planet's magnetic environment at the smallest scales ever achieved. This advances our understanding of Earth's bow shock and how it acts as a giant particle accelerator – something that is key in our knowledge of the high-energy Universe."
• November 14, 2018: The SPC (Science Program Committee) of ESA has confirmed the continued operations of ten scientific missions in the Agency's fleet up to 2022. After a comprehensive review of their scientific merits and technical status, the SPC has decided to extend the operation of the five missions led by ESA's Science Program: Cluster, Gaia, INTEGRAL, Mars Express, and XMM-Newton. The SPC also confirmed the Agency's contributions to the extended operations of Hinode, Hubble, IRIS, SOHO, and ExoMars TGO. 15)
- This includes the confirmation of operations for the 2019–2020 cycle for missions that had been given indicative extensions as part of the previous extension process, and indicative extensions for an additional two years, up to 2022.
- The decision was taken during the SPC meeting at ESA/ESAC (European Space Astronomy Center) near Madrid, Spain, on 14 November.
- ESA's science missions have unique capabilities and are prolific in their scientific output. Cluster, for example, is the only mission that, by varying the separation between its four spacecraft, allows multipoint measurements of the magnetosphere in different regions and at different scales, while Gaia is performing the most precise astrometric survey ever realized, enabling unprecedented studies of the distribution and motions of stars in the Milky Way and beyond.
- Many of the science missions are proving to be of great value to pursue investigations that were not foreseen at the time of their launch. Examples include the role of INTEGRAL and XMM-Newton in the follow-up of recent gravitational wave detections, paving the way for the future of multi-messenger astronomy, and the many discoveries of diverse exoplanets by Hubble.
- Collaboration between missions, including those led by partner agencies, is also of great importance. The interplay between solar missions like Hinode, IRIS and SOHO provides an extensive suite of complementary instruments to study our Sun; meanwhile, Mars Express and ExoMars TGO are at the forefront of the international fleet investigating the Red Planet.
- Another compelling factor to support the extension is the introduction of new modes of operation to accommodate the evolving needs of the scientific community, as well as new opportunities for scientists to get involved with the missions.
• November 8, 2018: Space weather is no abstract concept – it may happen in space, but its effects on Earth can be significant. To help better forecast these effects, ESA's Cluster mission, a quartet of spacecraft that was launched in 2000, is currently working to understand how our planet is connected to its magnetic environment, and unravelling the complex relationship between the Earth and its parent star. 16)
- Despite appearances, the space surrounding our planet is far from empty. The Earth is surrounded by various layers of atmosphere, is constantly bathed in a flow of charged particles streaming out from the Sun, known as the solar wind, and sends its own magnetic field lines out into the cosmos.
- This field floods our immediate patch of space, acting as a kind of shield against any extreme and potentially damaging radiation that might come our way. It also defines our planet's magnetosphere, a region of space dominated by Earth's magnetic field and filled with energy that is topped up by the solar wind and sporadically released into the near-Earth environment.
- With this comes ‘weather'. We occasionally experience magnetic storms and events that disturb and interact with Earth's radiation belts, atmosphere, and planetary surface. One of the most famous examples of this is the auroras that Earth experiences at its poles. These shimmering sheets of color form as the solar wind disrupts and breaches the upper layers of our atmosphere.
- Space Weather has a real impact on our activities on Earth, and poses a significant risk to spacefarers – robotic and human alike.
- Sudden flurries of high-energy particles emanating from the Sun can contain up to 100 million tons of material; this can penetrate spacecraft walls or affect their electronics, disable satellites, and take down terrestrial electrical transformers and power grids. There are currently about 1800 active satellites circling our planet, and our dependence on space technology is only growing stronger.
- "This highlights a pressing need for more accurate space weather forecasts," says Philippe Escoubet, Project Scientist for ESA's Cluster mission. "To understand and predict this weather, we need to know more about how the Earth and the Sun are connected, and what the magnetic environment around the Earth looks and acts like. This is what Cluster is helping us to do."
- Various spacecraft are investigating the magnetic environment around the Earth and how it interacts with the solar wind. Efforts have been internationally collaborative, from observatories including ESA's Cluster and Swarm missions, NASA's Magnetospheric MultiScale mission (MMS), the Van Allen Probes, and THEMIS (Time History of Events and Macroscale Interactions during Substorms), and the Japanese (JAXA/ISAS) Arase and Geotail missions.
- Cluster comprises four identical spacecraft that fly in a pyramid-like formation, and is able to gather incredibly detailed data on the complex structure and fluctuations of our magnetic environment.
- For nearly two decades, this quartet has mapped our magnetosphere and pinpointed flows of cold plasma and interactions with the solar wind, probed our magnetotail – an extension of the magnetosphere that stretches beyond the Earth in the direction opposite to the Sun. The mission also modelled the small-scale turbulence and intricate dynamics of the solar wind itself, and helped to explain the mysteries of Earth's auroras.
- While this back catalog of discoveries is impressive enough, Cluster is still producing new insights, especially in the realm of space weather. Recently, the mission has been instrumental in building more accurate models of our planet's magnetic field both close to Earth (at so-called geosynchronous altitudes) and at large distances from Earth's surface – no mean feat.
- In addition, ESA's Swarm mission is also providing insight into our planet's magnetic field. Launched in 2013 and comprising three identical satellites, Swarm has been measuring precisely the magnetic signals that stem from Earth's core, mantle, crust and oceans, as well as from the ionosphere and magnetosphere.
- "This kind of research is invaluable," adds Escoubet. "Unexpected or extreme outbursts of space weather can badly damage any satellites we have in orbit around the Earth, so being able to keep better track of them – while simultaneously gaining a better understanding of our planet's dynamic magnetic field structure – is key to their safety."
- Cluster also recently tracked the impact of huge outbursts of highly energetic particles and photons from the outer layers of the Sun known as coronal mass ejections (CMEs). The data showed that CMEs are able to trigger both strong and weak geomagnetic storms as they meet and are deformed at Earth's bow shock– the boundary where the solar wind meets the outer limits of our magnetosphere.
- Such storms are extreme events. Cluster explored a specific storm that occurred in September 2017, triggered by two consecutive CMEs separated by 24 hours. It studied how the storm affected the flow of charged particles leaving the polar regions of the ionosphere, a layer of Earth's upper atmosphere, above around 100 km, and found this flow to have increased around the polar cap by more than 30 times. This enhanced flow has consequences for space weather, such as increased drag for satellites, and is thought to be a result of the ionosphere being heated by multiple intense solar flares.
- The mission has observed how various other phenomena affect our magnetosphere, too. It spotted tiny, hot, local anomalies in the flow of solar wind that caused the entire magnetosphere to vibrate, and watched the magnetosphere growing and shrinking significantly in size back in 2013, interacting with the radiation belts that encircle our planet as it did so.
- Importantly, it also measured the speed of the solar wind at the ‘nose' of the bow shock. These observations connect data gathered near Earth to those obtained by Sun-watching satellites some 1.5 million km away at a location known as Lagrangian Point 1 – such as the ESA/NASA Solar and Heliospheric Observatory (SOHO) and NASA's Advanced Composition Explorer (ACE). These data offer all-important evidence for solar wind dynamics in this complex and unclear region of space.
- "All of this, and more, has really made it possible to better understand the dynamics of Earth's magnetic field, and how it relates to the space weather we see," says Escoubet. "Cluster has produced such wonderful science in the past 18 years – but there's still so much more to come."
• February 8, 2018: As inhabitants of the third rock from the Sun, we have a vested interest in understanding our home planet and its environment. Among the flotilla of spacecraft that have been sent to investigate Earth from space are the four spacecraft of the Cluster mission. Since 2000, they have been tirelessly gathering vital data about the magnetic environment around our planet and, in the process, about one of the most important relationships in the Solar System: the physical connection between the Earth and the Sun. 17)
- Cluster was the first mission to study the magnetosphere (the region where Earth's magnetic field dominates) in three dimensions and it has provided important clues about how this complex barrier shapes our atmosphere and interacts with the solar wind – the continuous stream of high-energy particles from the Sun.
- The Cluster quartet – four identical spacecraft flying in a pyramid configuration – study the physical processes occurring within and around the magnetosphere. To better understand this region is to better understand how life was and is possible on our planet. Cluster data also provide essential insights for safe air travel, space travel and effective satellite communications.
- Most missions studying the magnetosphere focus their efforts around the equator where much of the electric currents flow. The Cluster fleet, however, occupies a polar orbit, sweeping the sky from the magnetosphere to interplanetary space while exploring the dynamic polar regions in unprecedented detail. It is in these regions that the most important interactions between the magnetosphere and the solar wind take place.
- Cluster's continuous observations, longevity, unique orbit, and changing configuration as a multi-spacecraft mission make it a key instrument in understanding the complex magnetic environment of the Earth and its finely balanced relationship with the Sun. In this article, we present some of the scientific highlights from this remarkable mission. Some of the scientific highlights from this remarkable mission are presented.
Models and maps of the Earth's magnetosphere
Among Cluster's most notable successes has been in its ability to model and map the Earth's magnetosphere, the region where the solar wind and the Earth's magnetic field interact. The powerful magnetic field the Earth produces has the vital job of shielding the atmosphere and surface of the Earth from the Sun's perpetual bombardment of – at times – dangerous energetic particles, and yet how it behaves is still not well understood. The rise of space travel has made mapping this activity a much more important and pressing matter. The magnetosphere acts as a giant energy reservoir, absorbing energy from the solar wind and expelling it violently during magnetic storms. Predicting these outbursts is key to delivering space missions safely.
In 2014, a study using Cluster data revealed a new model of this mysterious region. The study brought together data from several spacecraft, as well as supporting observations from solar wind probes and ground-based geomagnetic observatories, to develop a model that describes the Earth's magnetic field and its interaction with the solar wind not just theoretically as had been the case previously, but based on actual measurements. Recently, the model has been refined and improved, resulting in even better insight into the structure and dynamics of the magnetosphere close to Earth and in the more distant reaches of the magnetosphere. This kind of global, observation-based, model of the magnetosphere would not have been possible without Cluster's data, which covers much higher latitudes than other missions.
Using Cluster data in another way researchers were also able to map the cold plasma, flowing out from the Earth's atmosphere, in three dimensions and more accurately than ever before, a development with particularly important implications for predicting space weather and the dynamics of the magnetosphere. Cold plasma is made up of slow moving, positively charged particles that are created when the Sun strips atmospheric atoms of their electrons leaving behind their positively charged nuclei. These are thought to play an important role in how the storms affect us. However, prior to the study in question the quantity of cold plasma around the Earth was unknown and very difficult to detect. Spacecraft – whose exterior will also be positively charged for the same reason as the cold plasma – repel the plasma, making it easy to miss.
Using the unique configuration of the four Cluster spacecraft researchers analyzed anomalies in the data that resulted from the plasma particles being repelled by, and moving around, each spacecraft. The data showed that cold plasma dominates most of the volume of the magnetosphere at least 50-70% of the time, much more than previously thought, and reaches from the top of Earth's atmosphere to at least a quarter of the distance to the Moon. Taking this extra amount of cold plasma into account when creating models for space weather will much improve their accuracy and fill some of the missing gaps that currently exist in knowledge about how plasma might affect solar storms.
Mysteries of the magnetosphere
Mapping Earth's complex magnetosphere has also led to new insights about the dynamics of what is known at the magnetotail – the region of the magnetosphere that extends beyond the Earth, away from the Sun. The magnetotail consists of two lobes – northern and southern – containing very few particles and separated by a plasma sheet. This sheet has a much higher density of charged particles than the lobes and a magnetic field which, while weaker, varies hugely in amplitude. For a long time it has been theorized that these variations are caused by oscillations in the sheet's current but the origins of the oscillations were unknown. In 2004, data from Cluster revealed the origins of the oscillations for the first time and proved that they are not, like so much else in the magnetosphere, caused by external influence but by internal processes. The researchers found waves (dubbed kink-like waves) at the center of the tail with properties unlike any seen before. These waves are emitted and propagate outwards causing the oscillations observed.
The mysterious oscillation of the magnetotail's plasma sheet is not the only mystery to be solved by Cluster. In 2015 an international team of scientists set out specifically to solve a fifty-year-old magnetosphere mystery. The mystery at hand was equatorial noise: noisy plasma waves located close to the equatorial plane of Earth's magnetic field. The waves were first observed in 1966 and have since become the most frequently observed waves by spacecraft in the region, yet no one had the evidence for a robust theory of their structure or where they came from – until 2015. When this evidence finally came, the equatorial noise turned out to be far from noisy. In fact, Cluster observations revealed a highly structured and periodic pattern, much more coherent and structured than most plasma waves. The well organized spectroscopic pattern matched the frequencies of protons moving in a circular motion in a uniform magnetic field and thus confirmed that the waves are generated by protons. To get this result required observations over distance and time that were only possible with Cluster's unique configuration and this gave the answers to a mystery that has eluded researchers for half a century. Cluster observes the structure of equatorial noise (14 July 2015, see Figure 35).
New view of the solar wind
Cluster not only turns its attention to the Earth's magnetosphere, but also to the external factors that shape it. Key to this is the solar wind, a stream of electrically charged atomic particles, known as plasma, which is ejected by the Sun and travels across the Solar System, carrying its own magnetic field with it. The solar wind travels at speeds of up to 2000 km/hour and reaches temperatures of one million degrees Celsius. Cluster has been used to probe the detail of this wind, zooming in to reveal fine details in the plasma's dynamics and to make extremely detailed observations. One resulting discovery from this zooming in on the Sun's destructive wind is that there are swirls of turbulence within it, even on a very small scale. This turbulence arises from irregularities in the flow of particles and magnetic field lines (Figure 25).
The turbulence was uncovered using just two of the four Cluster satellites and showed for the first time that the solar wind plasma is extremely structured at this high resolution with turbulent swirls bordered by a sheet of electric current just 20 km across. This small-scale phenomena has a big effect on how the plasma behaves and it is thought to be these cascades of energy that contribute to the overall heating of the solar wind.
More a sieve than a barrier
New insights into the magnetosphere and the solar wind are a key output of the Cluster mission, but it is in studying the interactions between the two that the mission really makes it mark.
Cluster has redefined how we think about the magnetosphere with the discovery that, when it comes to the solar wind, our trusted shield is more a sieve than a barrier and is penetrated in numerous places, and in numerous ways, by the solar wind's onslaught of charged particles.
It has been known for some time that there are locations on the outer region of the magnetosphere, known as the magnetopause, where the solar wind particles are able to penetrate. This occurs at points where the Earth's magnetic field and the magnetic field of the Sun – the interplanetary magnetic field – are pointing in opposite directions; one to the south, the other to the north. At these points a process known as reconnection, where field lines break and reconnect to others around them, takes place, essentially creating a door in the magnetopause for the solar wind particles to enter through. This explains the presence of reservoirs of high-energy particles under these areas in the magnetopause but for some time scientists remained puzzled as to why these reservoirs are also found in areas where the two magnetic fields at the magnetopause are aligned and should therefore create an impenetrable barrier.
It was in 2004 that Cluster solved this mystery when researchers discovered giant vortices of gas at the magnetopause boundary in areas where the Earth and interplanetary magnetic field lines were aligned. These huge swirls of plasma are formed by what are known as Kelvin-Helmholtz waves, which occur when two flows of material are aligned but travelling at different speeds causing them to slip past one another. This results in vortices of material up to 40 000 km across containing superheated material with the energy to drill through the magnetopause.
These finding have been further developed since, most notably in 2012 with the discovery of Kelvin-Helmholtz waves at other latitudes and orientations of the interplanetary magnetic field, and further analysis of the spatial structures and characteristics of them.
Complementing these findings, Cluster scientists have gained startling new insights into reconnection, the more established process for penetration of the magnetosphere. In reconnection, two parallel field lines with fields pointing in opposite directions collide, snap, and reconnect to form an entirely new magnetic topography which, in the case of the magnetopause, creates an open door for the solar wind to penetrate. Despite being key to many theories and observations the heart of this physical process, the point where the magnetic field lines break and reform, had not been observed in situ until 2006. The restricting factor for making this observation was that you need at least four simultaneous observations in order to characterize it, a functionality that only Cluster could provide. Using Cluster, scientists have now successfully characterized this point, known as the magnetic null, in three dimensions and its physical properties and topology have been described for the first time – in this case with a spatial extent of 500 km.
In 2017, scientists reported another surprising finding made with Cluster data: contrary to the consensus at the time, most of the energy dissipated during a reconnection event is not released at the crossings, or X-lines, between the two plasma flows but rather in swirling vortices, or O-lines, where magnetic field lines bundle up and spiral together. The finding is an important step in the process of understanding the mechanisms that accelerate particles in space plasma.
Although there are several ways through the magnetopause and the potential damage of the solar wind is undeniable, some of the most dangerous particles in the magnetosphere don't come from outside but are formed from within. The aptly named highly energetic particles known as killer electrons, found in Earth's outer radiation belt, are some of the most disruptive in the magnetosphere and can cause havoc for satellites. Luckily, satellite orbits can be adjusted to avoid these belts, or their key technology can be shut down when they transit through, but during solar storms the number of killer electrons swells and they can relocate, potentially causing mayhem. In 2004 scientists finally disentangled what causes these killer electrons to occur when Cluster observed the process first hand. They found that first, a shock wave from a solar storm hits the Earth's magnetic field causing it to compress and accelerate electrons within the magnetosphere. Then, immediately afterwards, Earth's magnetic field lines vibrate at ultra-low frequencies to further accelerate the electrons – and all that can happen in just 15 minutes. This discovery is key to improving the predictions about radiation in near-Earth space that keep satellites and astronauts safe.
Cluster may have shown us the dangers within the magnetosphere, and that it is not quite as impenetrable as we once thought, but the shielding effect that our magnetic field affords us should not be undervalued. Indeed, in 2012 Cluster worked with Mars Express to compare the effects of the same gust of solar wind on the atmospheres of Mars and Earth and found that Earth's magnetic field is essential for keeping our atmosphere in place. Observing both planets during a chance alignment showed that Mars' atmosphere lost oxygen at a rate ten times that of Earth, a difference which, over time, could explain some of the differences in atmosphere between the two planets and why ours was able to foster life.
Knowledge about the relationship between the magnetosphere and the solar wind, and the mechanisms by which plasma travels across the magnetopause is key to understanding the processes behind space weather phenomena such as magnetic storms and auroras. Auroras are among the most famous features of our skies, and they are certainly a stunning visual display of the Sun's effect on Earth, but they are still not well understood. Cluster has, however, helped to shed light on some of their mysterious behaviors.
Auroras are a consequence of the solar wind penetrating the magnetopause when magnetic reconnection occurs. These high-energy particles then travel along Earth's magnetic field lines and strike atoms high in the atmosphere creating the light displays we see from the surface.
Viewers are most likely to catch this display at 65-70 degrees north or south of the equator, encircling the polar caps in a region known as the auroral oval. However, if the Sun's magnetic field arrives at Earth with a certain orientation aurora can occur at higher latitudes, and the origin of these auroras are much less understood. In 2014 Cluster worked with NASA's IMAGE satellite to explain the workings of very high latitude auroras known as "theta auroras".
With the Cluster satellites located in the southern hemisphere magnetic lobe, and the IMAGE spacecraft having a wide-field view of the southern hemisphere, aurora researchers observed the phenomena more fully than ever before and could finally reveal its origin. They discovered that the lobe, an area of the magnetosphere which is usually filled with cold, unenergetic, plasma, does in some cases fill up with hot plasma when magnetic reconnection occurs on the night side of the Earth, thus closing the field lines and trapping the plasma within. Because the field lines are closed the solar wind can no longer enter and yet, as Cluster observed this strangely energetic plasma IMAGE simultaneously observed the theta aurora, proving the build-up of hot plasma to be the origin of these rare auroras.
This is not the only aurora mystery that Cluster has unravelled. In 2015 Cluster revealed, for the first time, the relationship between the bright auroras we are familiar with and the less familiar black auroras, the dark patches which stretch between their colorful cousins. In 2001 Cluster made the first ever observations of the dark auroras and revealed that the electron population of the ionosphere – the ionized region of the atmosphere where the auroras occur – becomes depleted in these dark regions. These black auroras are not the result of particles entering our atmosphere down magnetic field lines and striking atoms, as is the case with colored auroras, but of particles escaping in the other direction, emptying the ionosphere as they go. Fourteen years later, in 2015, scientists were able to use Cluster to develop the first accurate model of the electric fields and currents within black auroras and to demonstrate the relationship between the currents that bring particles from the magnetosphere to the ionosphere – creating auroras – and those that suck the particles from the ionosphere to the magnetosphere – creating dark auroras.
Understanding how the magnetosphere and ionosphere exchange particles is not just an exercise in satisfying curiosity. Changes in the number of electrons in the ionosphere can affect GPS signals reducing the accuracy of their navigation and timing, and have an impact on the radar and radio communications of aircraft flying over the North Pole. Understanding the ionosphere and being able to make predictions using models like those developed with Cluster is vital in our modern society.
Clues to a life-giving atmosphere
Cluster has shown that the Earth's magnetic field plays a vital role in keeping our atmosphere in place and allowing life to thrive, but how particles move within the magnetosphere, and where the plasma within it comes from, are equally important to understand and this too has been probed by the Cluster quartet.
Until 2013 the flow of plasma from the plasmasphere to the outer magnetosphere had only been observed in short bursts, known as plumes, which, even combined with the biggest contributor of plasma to our magnetosphere – the solar wind – could not account for the replenishment of plasma predicted in models. It was the capabilities of Cluster that enabled scientists to resolve this issue. Cluster data were used to identify a leakage of material from the plasmasphere outwards – a leak that constantly transfers material to the magnetosphere. Rather than looking just at plumes of material, there is now evidence of a steady wind of plasma from plasmasphere to magnetosphere, transferring almost 90 tonnes of plasma each day. This research was further built upon in 2016 using Cluster data to compare the steady leakage of Earth's atmosphere with the sporadic plumes that emanate from the plasmasphere (see Figure 31).
Understanding the behavior of our atmosphere is key to untangling the conditions for life. We know that planetary atmospheres play an essential role in rendering a planet habitable or lifeless and to find the potential for life in atmospheres elsewhere, we first need to understand our own (Ref 17).
• January 29, 2018: For the first time, scientists have estimated how much energy is transferred from large to small scales within the magnetosheath, the boundary region between the solar wind and the magnetic bubble that protects our planet. Based on data collected by ESA's Cluster and NASA's THEMIS missions over several years, the study revealed that turbulence is the key, making this process a hundred times more efficient than in the solar wind. 18)
- The planets in the Solar System, including our Earth, are bathed in the solar wind, a supersonic flow of highly energetic, charged particles relentlessly released by the Sun. Our planet and a few others stand out in this all-pervasive stream of particles: these are the planets that have a magnetic field of their own, and so represent an obstacle to the sweeping power of the solar wind.
- It is the interaction between Earth's magnetic field and the solar wind that creates the intricate structure of the magnetosphere, a protective bubble that shields our planet from the vast majority of solar wind particles.
- So far, scientists have achieved a fairly good understanding of the physical processes that take place in the solar wind plasma and in the magnetosphere. However, many important aspects are still missing regarding the interplay between these two environments and about the highly turbulent region that separates them, known as magnetosheath, where it is suspected that most of the interesting action happens.
- "To learn how energy is transferred from the solar wind to the magnetosphere, we need to understand what goes on in the magnetosheath, the 'grey area' between them," says Lina Zafer Hadid, from the Swedish Institute of Space Physics in Uppsala, Sweden. Lina is the lead author of a new study that quantifies, for the first time, the role of turbulence in the magnetosheath. The results are published in Physical Review Letters. 19)
- "In the solar wind, we know that turbulence contributes to the dissipation of energy from large scales of hundreds of thousands of kilometers to smaller scales of a kilometer, where plasma particles are heated up and accelerated to higher energies," explains co-author Fouad Sahraoui from the Laboratory of Plasma Physics in France.
- "We suspected that a similar mechanism must be at play in the magnetosheath too, but we could never test it until now," he adds.
- The magnetosheath plasma is more turbulent, home to a greater extent of density fluctuations and can be compressed to a much higher degree than the solar wind. As such, it is substantially more complex, and scientists have only in recent years developed the theoretical framework to study the physical processes taking place in such an environment.
- Lina, Fouad and their collaborators combed through a vast volume of data collected between 2007 and 2011 by the four spacecraft of ESA's Cluster and two of the five spacecraft of NASA's THEMIS missions, which fly in formation through Earth's magnetic environment.
- When they applied the recently developed theoretical tools to their data sample, they were in for a big surprise.
- "We found that density and magnetic fluctuations caused by turbulence within the magnetosheath amplify the rate at which energy cascades from large to small scales by at least a hundred times with respect to what is observed in the solar wind," explains Lina.
- The new study indicates that about 10-13 J of energy is transferred per cubic meter every second in this region of Earth's magnetic environment.
- "We expected that compressible turbulence would have an impact on the energy transfer in magnetosheath plasma, but not that it would be so significant," she adds.
- In addition, the scientists were able to derive an empirical correlation that links the rate at which energy is dissipated in the magnetosheath with the fourth power of another quantity used to study the motion of fluids, the so-called turbulent Mach number. Named after Austrian physicist Ernst Mach, it quantifies the speed of fluctuations in a flow with respect to the speed of sound in that fluid, indicating whether a flow is subsonic or supersonic.
- While the energy transfer rate is tricky to determine unless using space probes that take in situ measurements, like the Cluster spacecraft sampling the plasma around Earth, the Mach number can be more easily estimated using remote observations of a variety of astrophysical plasma beyond the realm of our planet.
- "If this empirical relation turns out to be universal, it will be extremely useful to explore cosmic plasma that cannot be directly probed with spacecraft, such as the interstellar medium that pervades our Milky Way and other galaxies," says Fouad.
- The scientists are looking forward to comparing their results with measurements of the plasma surrounding other Solar System planets with an intrinsic magnetic field, for example using NASA's Juno mission, currently at Jupiter, and ESA's future Jupiter Icy Moons Explorer, and also the joint ESA-JAXA BepiColombo mission to Mercury that is scheduled for launch later this year.
- "It is very exciting that a study based on several years of Cluster data has found the key to address a major, long unsolved question in plasma physics," says Philippe Escoubet, Cluster Project Scientist at ESA.
• January 15, 2018: Maybe you're reading this caption while drinking a coffee. As you stir your drink with a spoon, vortices are produced in the liquid that decay into smaller eddies until they disappear entirely. This can be described as a cascade of vortices from large to small scales. Furthermore, the motion of the spoon brings the hot liquid into contact with the cooler air and so the heat from the coffee can escape more efficiently into the atmosphere, cooling it down. 20)
- A similar effect occurs in space, in the electrically charged atomic particles – solar wind plasma – blown out by our Sun, but with one key difference: in space there is no air. Although the energy injected into the solar wind by the Sun is transferred to smaller scales in turbulent cascades, just like in your coffee, the temperature in the plasma is seen to increase because there is no cool air to stop it.
- How exactly the solar wind plasma is heated is a hot topic in space physics, because it is hotter than expected for an expanding gas and almost no collisions are present. Scientists have suggested that the cause of this heating may be hidden in the turbulent character of the solar wind plasma.
- Advanced supercomputer simulations are helping to understand these complex motions: the image shown in Figure 29 is from one such simulation. It represents the distribution of the current density in the turbulent solar wind plasma, where localized filaments and vortices have appeared as a consequence of the turbulent energy cascade. The blue and yellow colors show the most intense currents (blue for negative and yellow for positive values).
- These coherent structures are not static, but evolve in time and interact with each other. Moreover, between the islands, the current becomes very intense, creating high magnetic stress regions and sometimes a phenomenon known as magnetic reconnection. That is, when magnetic field lines of opposite direction get close together they can suddenly realign into new configurations, releasing vast amounts of energy that can cause localized heating.
- Such events are observed in space, for example by ESA's Cluster quartet of satellites in Earth orbit, in the solar wind. Cluster also found evidence for turbulent eddies down to a few tens of kilometers as the solar wind interacts with Earth's magnetic field.
- This cascade of energy may contribute to the overall heating of the solar wind, a topic that ESA's future Solar Orbiter mission will also try to address.
• May 17, 2017: The Cluster satellite quartet, launched in 2000, no longer have working batteries, so the team must power each spacecraft off before entry into eclipse and power them back on, in a controlled way, after eclipse exit. 21)
- The Cluster satellite quartet, launched in 2000, no longer have working batteries, so the team must power each spacecraft off before entry into eclipse and power them back on, in a controlled way, after eclipse exit.
- Due to the seasonal alignment of the four satellites' orbits with the Sun and Earth, Cluster will experience two eclipse seasons each year, one that lasts three weeks around February/March, where the eclipses are short (taking place at pericenter), and another in August/September, where the eclipses are long (at apocenter).
- After power down, the spacecraft are booted up in their default 'factory' configuration (everything is reset!) and each must be fully re-configured back to an operational mode. All the necessary commanding is mostly performed automatically under direct supervision of spacecraft controllers and operations engineers.
- The whole sequence takes, currently, just over two hours with the spacecraft being configured in parallel using two ground station antennas. During eclipse seasons, the most of the scientific instruments are not used, except for two field sensors called FGM and EFW (one each for magnetic and electric).
- Cluster is one of Europe's most successful astrophysics missions ever, and the four craft are delivering the most detailed information ever about how the Sun's solar wind affects our planet in three dimensions.
• April 10, 2017: ESA's Cluster mission is challenging the current view of magnetic reconnection – the breaking and immediate rearrangement of magnetic field lines in the collision of two plasma flows. According to a new study, most of the energy dissipated during a reconnection event is not released at the crossings, or X-lines, between the two plasma flows but rather in swirling vortices, or O-lines, where magnetic field lines bundle up and spiral together. The new finding, which contradicts the accepted consensus, is an important step in the process of understanding the mechanisms that accelerate particles in space plasma. 22)
- Plasma permeates the cosmos. The mixture of charged particles – electrons, protons, and heavier ions – is found in the atmosphere of the Sun, in the magnetic environment of Earth, and in the vastness of interplanetary and interstellar space.
- An important phenomenon occurring in plasma is magnetic reconnection, which happens when the magnetic field lines of two colliding flows of plasma are broken and reconfigure immediately afterwards in a different geometry. In the process, the energy stored in the magnetic field is transferred to the kinetic energy of particles in the plasma, accelerating them in the form of two jets of high-speed particles launched in opposite directions.
- Magnetic reconnection happens, for example, in the magnetosphere of Earth, where it is triggered by a change in the orientation of the interplanetary magnetic field carried across the Solar System by the solar wind, the stream of electrically charged particles flowing from the Sun. As a result, plasma particles are accelerated and can infiltrate the upper layer of Earth's atmosphere – the ionosphere – causing the beautiful polar lights, as well as disruptive magnetic storms that can interfere with satellites and telecommunication networks.
- Scientists study magnetic reconnection using space missions like ESA's Cluster, which consists of four spacecraft flying in formation through the Earth's magnetic environment, as well as laboratory experiments and computer simulations.
- Bridging the microscopic and macroscopic aspects of magnetic reconnection, from the particle level to the large-scale flows of matter and energy, is one of the major unsolved questions concerning this ubiquitous process. In particular, scientists are striving to understand how energy is dissipated when the magnetic field lines break, eventually leading to the acceleration of particles.
- One aspect that seemed well established – the identification of the sites where energy dissipation takes place – is now being shaken up by a new study based on data from Cluster. These results call for a rethink of the standard view of magnetic reconnection.
- Under scrutiny are the two magnetic field line geometrical configurations, X-lines and O-lines, which arise when two flows of plasma collide. The main X-line is located at the crossing of the two flows, whereas smaller X-lines as well as O-lines – whirlpool-shaped vortices where the magnetic field lines swirl together – may appear throughout the broader diffusion region.
- "We always thought that, in a magnetic reconnection event, energy would be dissipated at the X-lines, but the new evidence shows we've been looking at the wrong place," says Huishan Fu of Beihang University, China, lead author of the study published in Geophysical Research Letters. - "In fact, most of the energy is being dissipated at the O-lines instead." 23)
- Previous studies based on observations of magnetic reconnection events suggested that energy must be dissipated at the X-lines, which are the sites from which the two jets of high-speed particles are launched. However, these analyses did not include an accurate estimate of the location of X- and O-lines, as there was no method at that time to infer the magnetic field line geometry throughout the diffusion region.
- The new study is the first to apply a recently developed method to reconstruct such topology, and it was this that enabled the scientists to reliably identify the sites of the X- and O-lines in the plasma.
- The method, developed by Huishan and collaborators and published in 2015, was tested on data from Cluster and NASA's Magnetospheric Multiscale mission (MMS), which also consists of four spacecraft, as well as on the output of three-dimensional simulations. It provides the mathematical formalism not only to reconstruct the geometrical configuration of the magnetic field in the space between the four spacecraft that took the measurements, but also to expand the reconstruction to a broader region surrounding the spacecraft.
- The team applied this method to a magnetic reconnection event recorded by Cluster on 9 October 2003, when the spacecraft passed through a reconnection diffusion region, moving on the night side of Earth, in the magnetotail of our planet. This was a rare and valuable event because the four spacecraft were flying through the diffusion region, only about 200 km apart, where they encountered several potential sites of X- and O-lines.
- "With our method, we could reconstruct the topology of the plasma that the four Cluster spacecraft had flown through," explains Huishan. "We were extremely surprised to see that the electric current was very weak at X-lines, while it was very strong at the O-lines. This means that, contrary to our expectations, the O-lines are where most of the energy is dissipated."
- The new finding, which is in stark contradiction to the present-day consensus, suggests that something profound is missing from the current understanding of magnetic reconnection. - The strong energy dissipation at O-lines is likely due to the current-driven turbulence, which is also very intense at the O-lines as revealed by Cluster. Huishan and his colleagues have not yet uncovered how exactly the current drives the small-scale turbulence; they are planning to perform a detailed analysis of this process in the future.
- This is a leap forward in our investigation of how particles are accelerated during magnetic reconnection," concludes Philippe Escoubet, Cluster Project Scientist at ESA. "This surprising discovery shows the importance of a multi-spacecraft mission like Cluster to study space plasma."
• November 22, 2016: ESA's Science Program Committee (SPC) has today confirmed two-year mission extensions for nine scientific missions in which the Agency is participating. This secures their operations until the end of 2018. — After a comprehensive review of their current operational status and the likely scientific return from each mission, the SPC decided to extend the operation of six ESA-led missions (Cluster, INTEGRAL, Mars Express, PROBA-2, SOHO and XMM-Newton) from 1 January 2017 to 31 December 2018. 24)
- The go-ahead was also given to continue ESA's contributions to the operations of three international collaborative missions: the Hubble Space Telescope and the Interface Region Imaging Spectrograph (IRIS), which are both led by NASA, as well as Solar-B (Hinode), which is a Japanese-led 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? 25)
- 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 31 and 32).
- 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.
Legend to Figure 31: 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.
Legend to Figure 32: 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. 25).
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.
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. 25).
• 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. 26) 27)
- 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.
• 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. 28) 29)
- 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. 30)
- 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."
Legend to Figure 35: 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. 31)
- 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. 32)
- 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.
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 38).
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.
Legend to Figure 37: 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’.
Legend to Figure 38: 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. 33). 35)
• 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. 36)
• 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. 37)
- 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 3.
OBDH + SSR (Solid Sate Recorder)
Minor TM failed
Minor TM failed
TTC (Tx & High Power Amplifier)
Tx1 & HPA1 still in use
Only HTR-F and HTR-H are used in routine
Batteries (80 Ah at launch)
BTR 1&5 1.9 Ah
BTR 5 1.0 Ah
not to be used anymore
Solar Array Power (March 2014)
BOL in Sept. 2000
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 39.
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 39: 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.
Routine operations with low power: The evolution of the Cluster orbits had several major operational consequences:
10) 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.
11) The number of Earth eclipses per year increased greatly.
12) The solar arrays degraded faster when passing through the inner radiation belt below 11,000 km altitude.
13) The albedo of the Earth heated the arrays and still causes a power drop around perigee.
14) With decreasing perigee height the apogee increased and reduced the capability to downlink science data in high bit rate.
15) 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. 38)
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: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2013JA019346/pdf
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.
Legend to Figure 40: 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). 39)
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. 40)
Legend to Figure 41: 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. 39) 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. 41)
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. 42) 43)
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.
Legend to Figure 42: 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. 43).
• 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. 44)
• 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. 45) 46)
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.
Legend to Figure 43: 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.
• 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. 47)
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. 49)
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. 48)
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.
• 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. 50) 51) 52)
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.
Legend to Figure 44: 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.
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. 54) 55)
• 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. 56)
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. 57)
Legend to Figure 46: 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. 58)
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.
Legend to Figure 47: 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. 60) 61)
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. 62)
- 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.
Legend to Figure 48: 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. 62).
• 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. 63) 64)
• In November 2010, ESA's Science Program Committee approved an extension of the Cluster mission for 2 years up to the end of 2012. 65)
• 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. 66) 67) 68)
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). 69)
• 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. 70)
• 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. 71)
• 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. 72)
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. 73)
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. 74)
• Out of 19 successive eclipses only 12 could be run nominally. 75)
• 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. 76)
• 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. 77)
• 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. 78)
• 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. 79)
• 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. 80)
• 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. 81) 82)
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).
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
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. 83) 84)
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: 85) 86)
- 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
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).
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). 87)
Two electric-field components (Ey, Ez);
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
Determined by FFT (Fast Fourier Transform)
10-20 ms (per FFT spectrum)
5 dB steps, 16 levels, dynamic range 75 dB, automatic ranging or set by command
1-bit, 4-bit, or 8-bit resolution for a selection of sample rates
Mass (flight models, measured)
Power (flight models, measured)
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.
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. 88)
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.
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. 89)
• 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).
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. 90)
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. 91)
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.
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). 92)
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.
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. 37), 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.
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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 (email@example.com).
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