back to article 20 years deep into a '2-year' mission: How ESA keeps Cluster flying

ESA's Cluster mission is heading into its third decade of operations. The Register spoke to some of the people behind the four spacecraft about how the team turned a five-year nominal lifetime into 20 years and beyond. The four identical Cluster spacecraft, flying in a tetrahedral formation, are designed to study structures in …

  1. Pascal Monett Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    "It's a very strong design,"

    It most definitely is. Time and time again we see our spacecraft outlive their mission plan due not only to well-designed craft, but mostly to the intelligence, ingenuity and dogged determination of the people who are in charge of operating them. This is a testament to the dedication humans are capable of in attaining the goal and going beyond. It is a marvelous asset for our future, and always make for very interesting reading.

    Well done boffins, again !

    1. anothercynic Silver badge

      Re: "It's a very strong design,"

      I second Pascal's post. This is what science is. :-)

      1. stiine Silver badge
        Pint

        Re: "It's a very strong design,"

        Its Science, Engineering, lots of math, and a "I bet we can make it do this." attitude.

        That, my dear children is how you do things if you are, in fact, a boffin.

        1. HildyJ Silver badge
          Pint

          Re: "It's a very strong design,"

          To the boffins who kept the Cluster from being fucked. I lift my mask and sip a beer salute.

          1. JCitizen Bronze badge
            Go

            Re: "It's a very strong design,"

            LOL!! That was what I was thinking; it gives me a warm fuzzy feeling to see such a good use of research money, and stretching it out so far, means science gets a BIG bang for the buck. I too would like to propose a toast to the boffins of this project. Here! Here!!

    2. Doctor Syntax Silver badge

      Re: "It's a very strong design,"

      I suspect the original design followed what I consider to be an important principle:

      Don't design it to meet the requirement, design it to fulfil the widest general case of which the requirement is just an example.

    3. Getmo

      Re: "It's a very strong design,"

      > a testament to the dedication humans are capable of

      Indeed, we are (and have been) capable of great engineering for a long time. Planned obsolescence has creeped so deeply into our consumer appliances, and our psyche, these sorts of feats seem even more impressive now. In reality, humanity's overall engineering skill has advanced so far, the greatest can now design a tool with a 2 year warranty to die after 2 years 1 month. (The guy who designed a tool that lasts 8 years got fired, he nearly collapsed the company by impacting future tool sales).

      We've known how to design things to last as long as possible for a long time now, in fact we've only gotten better at it. It's just VERY rare that is ever the goal, even commercial equipment vendors need to make a living off of service contracts. One of the few scenarios where it's actually *economical* to overbuild the hell out of it, is spacecraft design (you've only got one shot).

      2nd thing: I'm marveling at this right now, can't believe I've haven't realized it yet: whatever you call that duplicate "ground spacecraft". I've known about them for some time, even seen used in movies like Apollo 13 and The Martian, but their importance always seems downplayed. It made me think till now this was a "nice to have" thing, but in fact I've just realized, this is 100% a necessity for every space mission! How the hell do they keep extending missions decades beyond planned lifespan? How the hell do they test these "dirty hacks" that keep them operational for so long? That 'ground spacecraft', I've realized, is absolutely essential to keep any mission running!

    4. SmartAlec

      Re: "It's a very strong design,"

      I must take issue with "determination" - it's lack of this mattering that gives strong designs. Because if it breaks trying to use willpower or prayer or the power of straining on the toilet will do sweet fuck all.

      As for determination as a drive of the staff to find creative fixes, the issue I take exists and is different! So screw you anyone who'd point that out ;)

      That's a symptom of "interest" - they're not determined, they're interested and engaged.

      Semantics?

    5. Blackjack

      Re: "It's a very strong design,"

      Since they have lasted almost four times more that expected, they have paid for themselves more than twice over. Heck with inflation NASA sure must have saved a whole lot of money with Cluster still running.

      1. KBeee

        Re: "It's a very strong design,"

        ESA not NASA

    6. Thoguht Silver badge

      Re: "It's a very strong design,"

      So, not like my washing machine that's just died, then.

  2. Tom Paine Silver badge

    Inspiring stuff

    ...although there are more than a few legacy systems on the ground which have been nursed along with patches, bodges and hacks that should have been put out of our misery years ago!

    1. Blackjack

      Re: Inspiring stuff

      Some libraries still use filing programs made for BASIC that originally ran on DOS 2.0

      For them Dosbox is a godsend unless they need to print something.

      And let's not start with COBOL...

      Programs made with versions of COBOL from the eighties are still running after being patched and updated several times since the Y2K fix only lasted nine to ten years in most cases.

  3. Stoneshop Silver badge

    How ESA keeps Cluster flying ... the original VAX VMS hardware

    Makes sense.

    1. phuzz Silver badge

      Re: How ESA keeps Cluster flying ... the original VAX VMS hardware

      Alas no:

      "Sousa explained that the original VAX VMS hardware was long gone"

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: How ESA keeps Cluster flying ... the original VAX VMS hardware

        >"Sousa explained that the original VAX VMS hardware was long gone"

        That's what they think - until they realise that thing in the back of the storage cupboard is a microvax that has been quietly running everything all along

      2. Stoneshop Silver badge
        FAIL

        Re: How ESA keeps Cluster flying ... the original VAX VMS hardware

        As if I wouldn't know that.

        (ex DEC-FS, 201462)

  4. Sir Runcible Spoon Silver badge
    Pint

    A very fine example of the truism..

    Necessity is the mother of invention.

    Well done those boffins, have a cup of Brownian motion on me (cunningly disguised as beer!)

  5. Ochib

    This was the second attempt

    As the first one blew up on lanch

    1. The Oncoming Scorn Silver badge
      Mushroom

      Re: This was the second attempt

      I don't think you can count the rocket going "bang" at launch as being the fault of the satellite or it's engineering teams.

      1. bombastic bob Silver badge
        Devil

        Re: This was the second attempt

        right, it's why the payloads must always be insured - it just happens sometimes. Rockets occasionally blow up. In fact, for safety reasons, they typically have explosives on board to make sure of that in case the thing goes wildly off course... better to blow it up far way from the potential collateral damage.

        oh, and "nice hack" for all those times the mission controllers kept the thing running *anyway*.

        (if anyone wonders what *REAL* hackers do for a living, that is...)

        1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

          Re: This was the second attempt

          > it's why the payloads must always be insured

          Generally not for scientific payloads like this one.

          Dear insurer we would like to launch an irreplaceable scientific payload on the first launch of a brand new Ariane rocket that we are getting for free because they aren't too sure about it.

          I can picture the nice little bulldog cocking his leg up at that one.

    2. Aqua Marina

      Re: This was the second attempt

      Matt Parker does a very interesting layman’s explanation of what went wrong with Ariane 5*. Fast forward to 56:20

      https://youtu.be/6JwEYamjXpA

      *it has an IT angle!

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: This was the second attempt

        >*it has an IT angle!

        Very specifically an angle iirc

        catless.ncl.ac.uk/Risks/18/18

  6. baud Bronze badge
    Pint

    I found a few pics of Earth taken by the clusters satellites:

    https://twitter.com/ESA_Cluster/status/740098397831593984

    https://twitter.com/ESA_Cluster/status/1001814363043442688

    A picture of the separation, by the same camera:

    https://twitter.com/ESA_Cluster/status/959064420054978561

    It's really cool how the camera was re used well into the mission, years after the expected life span of the mission. Here's one beer to all the boffins who worked on this.

  7. tapanit
    Alien

    Activate Omega-13.

    "Never give up. Never surrender." I must watch Galaxy Guest again one of these days.

    Seriously though, this is really cool. Sarris would have no chance against these guys.

    1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

      Re: Activate Omega-13.

      And if all else fails, turn it off and on again every day

    2. Anonymous Custard Silver badge
      Alien

      Re: Activate Omega-13.

      Especially as it goes full circle, that movie of course being a (semi-veiled) homage to Star Trek, which itself was (originally) a 5 year mission that's now been ongoing one way or another for over 50 years...

  8. ThatOne Silver badge
    Thumb Up

    Excellent title and subtitle BTW

    Made me want to read, before even realizing it was about Cluster.

    I still remember the disappointment when the brand new Ariane 5 blew up and the original cluster of Clusters was lost. It was a serious drawback for Ariane, but a total disaster for the Cluster team who lost everything.

    Well, it all got a happy ending after all, since the second Cluster cluster went way beyond expectations.

  9. Secta_Protecta

    Great Memories

    Nice to see this, I worked on the Cluster II project and was even in Kazakhstan for one of the launches. One of the best experiences of my life...

  10. Mark192

    Threat to Earth's atmosphere?

    "The end will begin in 2024, when the first of the Cluster quartet enters the Earth's atmosphere

    the team were currently preparing a case...for the extension to ... 2025... Never give up. Never surrender."

    If any team is so focused on a goal that they're willing to give their fourth satellite a few extra months of life by sucking up the Earth's atmosphere so it can't degrade the orbit, it's this team.

    They're an existential threat to this planet but they're so damn impressive we should give them a shot at it.

    (This post has tongue firmly in cheek but, seriously, these people are the MacGyver's of space)

    1. tip pc Silver badge
      Coat

      Re: Threat to Earth's atmosphere?

      "these people are the MacGyver's of space"

      I suspect there is a lot of space MacGyvering going on that we just don't get to hear about.

      donning my lab coat

      1. Yet Another Anonymous coward Silver badge

        Re: Threat to Earth's atmosphere?

        >I suspect there is a lot of space MacGyvering going on

        Favorite is Hipparcos, a star position measuring mission. The 2nd stage didn't ignite leaving it in the wrong orbit.

        But having a couple of tons of scrap metal hanging on the back made it more stable and the results more accurate

    2. Paul Crawford Silver badge

      Re: Threat to Earth's atmosphere?

      Surely at that point it will be Cluster's last stand ?

  11. Cynic_999 Silver badge

    And they managed all that without using any duct tape at all!

  12. imanidiot Silver badge
    Pint

    Impressive

    Very interesting read and impressive work. It'll be bitter sweet when those satellites finally re-enter and return to this ball of dirt spinning through the endless void.

  13. Anonymous Custard Silver badge
    Pint

    "Never Give Up, Never Surrender"

    Nice nod to a great movie (Galaxy Quest) that itself was a homage to the most famous "5 year mission" that has now been ongoing on TV syndication and re-runs for over 50 years, namely Star Trek: TOS.

    Yet another space team who have definitely earned their beers...

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