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Two Satellites to Be Launched to Improve Spacecraft Safety
China will launch two satellites within a year to probe and predict geospace storms that could threaten spacecraft safety, a senior scientist said Thursday in Beijing.

And it will be the first time European experiments will ever be integrated with Chinese satellites, according to Liu Zhenxing, chief scientist of China's Double Star Program, in an interview with China Daily.

"We are testing eight pieces of equipment -- five from the European Space Agency (ESA) -- to be flown on the first of the two Chinese satellites in December," he said.

The "equatorial" satellite will be followed by a polar-range satellite, which is scheduled to be launched in June -- both aboard Chinese Long March 2C rockets, said Liu, also a member of the Chinese Academy of Sciences.

The two satellites comprise the famous "Double Star Program" -- a Chinese initiative to observe the Earth's geospace storms which exploration satellites from other countries have failed to cover, including those from ESA's Cluster II Mission, Liu said.

Geospace storms, including magnetic storms and storms of high energy particles, account for 40 percent of the world's 6,000 glitches in satellite operations recorded so far, he said.

The ESA, which launched a mini-flotilla of four identical spacecraft into elliptical orbits around the Earth in 2000, has shown a keen interest in China's Double Star Program and offered to cooperate, according to Liu.

Four years after Liu put forward the Double Star initiative in 1997, China's National Space Administration and the ESA signed an agreement in Paris, pledging financial and technological cooperation to turn it into a joint project.

Under the agreement, ESA will have 10 instruments included in the Double Star project. They are identical to those currently flying on the four Cluster spacecraft.

"We would hope to carry out a joint exploration of the magnetotail, a region where storms of high energy particles are generated," explained Cluster Project Scientist Philippe Escoubet about one of the scheme's objectives.

"When these particles reach Earth, they can cause power cuts, damage satellites and disrupt communications."

By combining the Double Star and Cluster satellites, scientists will for the first time in history be able to probe space close to the Earth from a six-dimensional perspective, and also better study the effects of the Sun on the planet's environment, Liu said.

Asked if the returns of the studies will benefit the country's ongoing manned space program, Liu said that in the long run, research on space's unpredictable climate -- like geospace storms during maximum solar exposure -- will help protect manned spacecraft.

(China Daily July 4, 2003)

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