Is Earth’s gravity field as intriguing and misshapen as this image above? We’re about to find out. The sexy looking Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer or GOCE satellite has completed its calibration and is now in its science orbit to map the tiny variations of Earth’s gravity in unprecedented detail. And it turns out the sun’s current period of low solar activity has a side benefit for the GOCE mission. Less solar activity means a calmer environment for GOCE in its low Earth orbit, so its current orbit of 255 km is a few kilometers lower than engineers had originally planned. This is good news – the gravity measurements being made at the moment will be even more accurate.
“The completion of the commissioning and first in-flight calibration marks an important milestone for the mission, ” said Rune Floberghagen, ESA’s GOCE Mission Manager. “We are now entering science operations and are looking forward to receiving and processing excellent three-dimensional information on the structure of Earth’s gravity field.”
Gravity is stronger closer to Earth, so GOCE was designed to orbit as low as possible while remaining stable as it flies through the fringes of our atmosphere. GOCE’s sleek aerodynamic design helps this the satellite to cut though the tenuous fringes of Earth’s atmosphere at this low altitude. Moreover, the electric ion thruster at the back continuously generates tiny forces to compensate for any drag that GOCE experiences along its orbit.
To help avoid drag and ensure that the gravity measurements are of true gravity, the satellite has to be kept stable in ‘free fall’. Any buffeting from residual air at this low altitude could potentially drown out the gravity data.
Space gradiometry and the use of the sophisticated electric propulsion are both ‘firsts’ in satellite technology, so the commissioning and calibration were particularly important for the success of the mission. This phase was completed in the summer, ready for the tricky task of bringing GOCE down to its operational altitude, which took a couple of months.
Over two six-month uninterrupted periods, GOCE will map these subtle variations with extreme detail and accuracy. This will result in a unique model of the ‘geoid’ – the surface of an ideal global ocean at rest.
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A precise knowledge of the geoid is crucial for accurate measurement of ocean circulation and sea-level change, both of which are influenced by climate. The data from GOCE are also much-needed to understand the processes occurring inside Earth. In addition, by providing a global reference to compare heights anywhere in the world, the GOCE-derived geoid will be used for practical applications in areas such as surveying and leveling.
Stay tuned for some unique data about our home planet from GOCE.