The European Space Agency (ESA) has agreed to send up a new Cluster science mission in 2000, replacing the four original satellites which were lost when the Ariane 5 was destroyed on its maiden flight in 1996.

The new satellites, which will be launched in pairs aboard two Russian Soyuz boosters, are to investigate the physical interaction between the Sun and the Earth.

The $248 million Cluster 2 mission will use the Phoenix, the original Cluster ground spare, and three new identical satellites, to be built by a consortium led by Daimler-Benz Aerospace.

The decision is a triumph for the ESA science-programme office, headed by Dr Roger Bonnet, and for the team of European scientists, including those in the UK, who are understood to have felt let down by the Ariane 5 management after the failure of the 501 maiden flight in June 1996.

Bonnet was willing to accept delays to other future science missions to re-fly the Cluster mission.

Unlike the original Clusters, which flew free on the 501, the launches of the Cluster 2 satellites by the Soyuz boosters will each cost $69 million. The price was negotiated with the newly created Starsem consortium, which includes Arianespace and which markets the Soyuz rocket.

It is the first commercial contract for the Soyuz since the establishment of Starsem, and should guarantee that the flight goes ahead on schedule. Although the Ariane 5 should be commercially operational by 1998 if two planned proving flights are successful, the booster will be committed to other commercial and ESA payloads. An Ariane 5 commercial flight would also have been more expensive.

Source: Flight International