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Tuesday, 4 July, 2000, 07:36 GMT 08:36 UK
Cluster mission launch bumped
Cluster esa
Cluster: The first spacecraft to fly in formation
Europe's next major space project, Cluster II, has been delayed for three days to make way for an important mission to the International Space Station (ISS).

Both Cluster and the ISS's Zvezda service module were given 12 July as a launch date from the Baikonur space port in central Kazakhstan. A dual launch was never likely and now Russian and European space officials have confirmed that the much delayed Zvezda unit will be given priority.

The Cluster mission, which will deploy four identical satellites to study Earth's near-space environment, will blast off on 15 July at 12:40 GMT.

This launch will be used to put the first pair of Cluster satellites into orbit. A second launch to send up the other pair has been provisionally booked for 9 August.

That Zvezda should get the earlier launch is no surprise. Lengthy delays in the module's preparation have knocked the ISS programme seriously off track, and the US space agency, Nasa, would simply not tolerate another, unnecessary hold-up.

Cluster facts
2.9m diameter
1.3m high
50m antennae
Spacecraft 480 kg
Fuel 650 kg
Instruments 70 kg
Minimum 25,500 km
Maximum 127,400 km
Space crews cannot live for extended periods on the embryonic space station until Zvezda is in place. The module is packed with air filters, has a waste disposal system and will help maintain the ISS at its required altitude.

Cluster II is not under the same pressure to launch. It is a "recovery mission". The first Cluster programme was destroyed on the maiden test flight of the Ariane 5 rocket in 1996.

The Cluster satellites will be the first spacecraft to fly freely in formation. They will study the physics of Earth's near-space environment, giving scientists better equations with which to forecast the violent space weather that can threaten satellites, astronauts and even power grids on the surface of the planet.

The dangers result from solar storms, which can bombard the Earth with speeding particles. The Sun's storm activity is expected to reach the maximum of its 11-year cycle in 2000.

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See also:

08 Jun 00 | Sci/Tech
Sun sends a cloud our way
19 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
National grid gets space protection
19 Feb 00 | Washington 2000
Space storm warnings on your wristwatch
09 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
Scientists 'look through' the Sun
03 Mar 00 | Sci/Tech
The Sun's show hots up
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