Space satellites to study effect of Sun's lethal wind
The "Cluster" space mission will probe how the Earth's magnetic field acts as a shield to divert the torrent of sub-nuclear particles streaming out from the Sun. These particles of the "solar wind" would otherwise hit the ground at speeds of 1.5-3 million km an hour.
According to professor Alan Johnstone, of the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London, without the Earth's magnetosphere human life would not survive. It "protects us by shielding us from the radiation from the Sun. It's also helped us to hang on to our atmosphere".
Apart from Venus, no other planet is capable of sustaining life, professor Johnstone said, because they all lack protective magnetic fields.
The shield sometimes breaks. In March 1989 there was a power failure throughout Quebec, in Canada, when a solar storm tripped the entire electricity grid. But the breakdown can be breathtakingly beautiful when it takes the form of the shifting curtains of light in the high atmosphere over the Poles - the aurora borealis and australis.
Dr Paul Murdin, head of astronomy at the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, said: "When the Sun sneezes, we on Earth have the possibility of catching cold and we want to learn how to turn our heads away and not get ill."
The researchers were speaking at a press conference in London yesterday revealing the scientific details of the Cluster mission.
Each satellite weighs about 1.2 tonnes and will be launched into geo- stationary orbit in the first lift-off by the latest and largest European rocket launcher, the Ariane 5. Europe hopes to steal a march on the Americans, Russians and Japanese with the Ariane 5, which will be its workhorse in the commercial satellite-launching business into the next century.
When Ariane 5 reaches orbit, the four Cluster satellites "will pop out like peas out of a pea-shooter", according to Dr Murdin. The satellites will then use their own on-board rocket motors to move into a highly elliptical orbit, which will take them over the North and South Poles of the Earth. They will fly in formation and their controllers on Earth will be able to vary the distance between the satellites from 600km to a few thousand kilometres. The Cluster satellites will carry a total of 44 instruments measuring magnetic storms, electrical currents, and particle accelerations that take place in the space around our planet. The mission will last for at least two years and has cost Europe and the US around pounds 500m over 10 years. (Graphic omitted)
- 2 Harry Potter fans can apply to the Hogwarts-inspired College of Wizardry
- 3 Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
- 4 Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
- 5 Orange Wednesdays are no more
Weather bomb in pictures: Storms cuts power for tens of thousands – and snow is on the way
Jessica Chambers: 19-year-old woman 'doused with lighter fluid and burned alive' in the US
Russell Brand calls Nigel Farage 'poundshop Enoch Powell' in BBC Question Time debate
Russell Brand was rendered speechless on Question Time by this man
Fury at Airbus after it hints the super-jumbo may be mothballed
Disgruntled RBS worker writes hilarious open letter to Russell Brand after anti-capitalist publicity stunt leaves him hungry
Nigel Farage's approval rating hits 'record low' as popularity suffers in wake of Ukip sex scandal
Nigel Farage defends Kerry Smith 'ch***y' comment: 'If you are going for a Chinese, what do you say you’re going for?'
Pakistan school attack live: Taliban kill at least 132 children in 'horrifying' massacre
Sony hack: Angelina Jolie branded 'seriously out of her mind' in further embarrassing leaked email saga
Panic Saturday: 13 million Britons spend £1.2bn – while 13 million others across the country live in poverty unable to afford food
£65000 - £80000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Finance Director required to jo...
£15000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a unique opportunity fo...
£50000 per annum + 26 days holiday,pension: Ashdown Group: A highly successful...
£27000 per annum + pension + holidays: The Jenrick Group: A Quality Technician...