Cluster Rises From Ashes

PARIS--Ten months ago, European space scientists saw one of their most important projects go up in smoke when Europe's Ariane 5 rocket, carrying a quartet of satellites called Cluster, exploded on its maiden voyage. Yesterday, they got some good news: A key European Space Agency (ESA) panel endorsed a plan to launch a full complement of replacement satellites in 2000.

The Cluster mission is composed of four probes designed to map Earth's magnetosphere in unprecedented detail. Since the explosion, however, ESA has struggled to find funding for a second try, and it has mulled proposals for scaled-down versions of Cluster. Last December, ESA freed up funds for a full Cluster mission by pushing back launch dates on future missions, but three countries--France, Germany, and the United Kingdom--were unwilling to ante up $20 million to replace the scientific payload.

The project was saved, however, when ESA's science committee announced two measures yesterday: The agency will finance about 40% of the scientific payload--relieving some of the burden on the three reluctant space agencies--and it will cap the mission's cost at $248 million. "It is an exceptional measure," says John Credland, a former Cluster project manager and now acting head of the scientific projects department at the European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. Another mission-saving maneuver was to involve the Russians: STARSEM, a joint venture between Arianespace and the Russian Space Agency, will launch the spacecraft using two Russian Soyuz launchers, capping launch costs at about $70 million. "Without the proposal of STARSEM, the project would not have gotten off the ground," says ESA spokesperson Roger Elaerts.

The three new spacecraft will be built by a European industrial consortium led by DASA/Daimler Benz Aerospace in Germany. "The contract has been started up," says Elaerts. And that's good news to project scientists. Says Donald Gurnett of the University of Iowa, lead investigator on a NASA-funded radio interferometer project, "I'm very excited."