Award for the team behind the multi spacecraft mission, Cluster
16 Jan 2019



Cluster, the world’s leading multi-spacecraft mission to study the structure and dynamics of Earth’s magnetic and plasma environments has been recognised by a major award.


​​​​​Cluster satellites study the effects of solar wind

Credit: ESA

The Royal Astronomical Society has awarded the 2019 Geophysics Group Achievement Award to the Cluster Science and Operations teams, for their continued success in ensuring the operations and scientific exploitation of the European Space Agency's Cluster mission.

Launched in 2000, following an earlier failed launch in 1997, ​Cluster ​continues to provide new, ground-breaking observations. The operations and data archiving for Cluster has taken place at RAL Space over the last 18 years.

The Cluster Joint Science Operations Centre (JSOC), located at RAL Space, continues to provide mission support and science operations planning, one of only a few examples where the responsibility for this critical activity has been contracted to a group outside ESA.

The JSOC generates the payload operation plan and translates it into the set of commands, to be uplinked to the spacecraft. Anne Chadwick, the operations manager at JSOC stated “Coordinating the operation of up to eleven instruments on each of the four spacecraft can be a complex and demanding task. Seeing the incredible results produced by the science teams has justified all the hard work that goes into the science planning."

Flight control by the Operations Team is conducted from ESA's European Space Operations Centre (ESOC), Darmstadt, Germany, where numerous innovative techniques have been developed to ensure this long-running mission keeps flying. ​

UK groups from Imperial College, UCL's Mullard Space Science Laboratory, and the University of Sheffield lead the magnetometer and low-energy plasma instrument teams, as well playing a leading role in the wave consortium. In addition to the JSOC, RAL Space was responsible for the hardware delivery of detectors and front-end electronics for the low and medium energy electron instruments on the Cluster spacecraft.

Professor Ian McCrea, Head of Space Physics and Operations Division at RAL Space said, “Congratulations to the UK Cluster community. This is a tribute to the hard work of the whole team including science, operations and archiving.   I'm particularly proud of the operations and archiving work done here at RAL Space but also of staff from across STFC and those in the wider community supported by STFC grants, who have been very heavily involved in the world-leading magnetospheric science which Cluster has produced over its many years of operation."

RAL Space also worked with the instrument teams and other national centres in the development of data processing and visualisation tools. The team continues to operate the UK National Cluster Data Centre, and had a major role in the development of the ESA Cluster Science Archive. The archive supports the exciting work currently being undertaken by the Cluster science community and will also form a great legacy for the mission, giving access to the unique results to a new generation of scientists in the field for decades after the mission comes to an end in a few years' time.  

The Cluster teams have pioneered the development of some of the key techniques now being used in multi-spacecraft data analysis, such as the QSAS analysis software, produced at Queen Mary College, and the use of curlometry for the derivation of field-aligned currents.

Cluster has produced a very wide range of science highlights, from new insights into the microscale physics of boundary regions, through mesoscale coupling between the magnetosphere and ionosphere, to global-scale studies of the response of the magnetosphere to the solar wind. 

​Read about all of the Royal Astronomical Society awards medals and prizes for 2019.