New Results from GOCE: Earth is a Rotating Potato

by Nancy Atkinson on March 31, 2011

Although they aren’t particularly fond of the comparison, scientists from the GOCE satellite team had to admit that new data showing Earth’s gravity field – or geoid — makes our planet look like a rotating potato. After just two years in orbit, ESA’s sleek and sexy GOCE satellite (Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer) has gathered sufficient data to map Earth’s gravity with unrivalled precision. While our world certainly doesn’t look like a spinning tuber, this exaggerated view shows the most accurate model of how gravity varies across the planet.

The geoid is nothing more than how the oceans would vary if there were no other forces besides gravity acting on our planet.

“If we had an homogeneous sphere, it would be a boring sphere,” said GOCE scientist Roland Pail from Technical University in Munich, speaking at the press briefing today. “But due to rotation, you get a flattening of the Earth, and we have topography such as mountains, and irregular mass distribution in Earth’s interior. What we are showing you here, in principle, is the gravity field by any deviations due to inhomogeneous mass distributions on the Earth and the Earth’s interior.”

In this GOCE image, gravity is strongest in yellow areas; it is weakest in blue ones. Credit: ESA

While a previous gravity satellite, the Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment (GRACE) operated for 8 years, most of the new data from GOCE was gathered in about 14 months, and provides data where there was none before.

GOCE is able to sense tiny variations in the pull of gravity over Earth, and the data is used to construct an idealized surface, which traces gravity lumps and bumps, and is the shape the oceans would take without winds, currents, Earth’s rotation and other forces.

By comparing sea level and geoid data, GOCE is revealing data on ocean currents and circulation, sea-level change, ice dynamics, said Rory Bingham, from the University of Newcastle, which helps understand heat transport and the changing climate.

But also of interest is how GOCE data reveals shifting tectonic plates in earthquakes and magma movements under volcanoes. Following the earthquakes in Japan, scientists are looking closely, as the data should reveal a three-dimensional view of what was going on inside the Earth. Even though the motion cannot be observed directly from space, earthquakes create signatures in gravity data, which could be used to understand the processes leading to these natural disasters and ultimately help to predict them.

“Even though these quakes resulted from big movements in the Earth, at the altitude of the satellite the signals are very small. But we should still seem them in the data,” said Dr. Johannes Bouman from the German Geodetic Research Institute.

GOCE in orbit. Credit: ESA

“GOCE will give us dynamic topography and circulation patterns of the oceans with unprecedented quality and resolution,” said professor Reiner Rummel, former Head of the Institute for Astronomical and Physical Geodesy at the Technische Universität München. “I am confident that these results will help improve our understanding of the dynamics of world oceans.”

“You could say that, at its early conception, GOCE was more like science fiction,” said Volker Liebig, Director of ESA’s Earth Observation Program. “GOCE has now clearly demonstrated that it is a state-of-the-art mission.”

Sources: GOCE press briefing, ESA press release


Nancy Atkinson is Universe Today's Senior Editor. She also works with Astronomy Cast, and is a NASA/JPL Solar System Ambassador.

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