First harvest of research based on the final GOCE gravity model

This image, based on the final GOCE gravity model, charts current velocities in the Gulf Stream in meters per second. -  TUM IAPG
This image, based on the final GOCE gravity model, charts current velocities in the Gulf Stream in meters per second. – TUM IAPG

Just four months after the final data package from the GOCE satellite mission was delivered, researchers are laying out a rich harvest of scientific results, with the promise of more to come. A mission of the European Space Agency (ESA), the Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) provided the most accurate measurements yet of Earth’s gravitational field. The GOCE Gravity Consortium, coordinated by the Technische Universität München (TUM), produced all of the mission’s data products including the fifth and final GOCE gravity model. On this basis, studies in geophysics, geology, ocean circulation, climate change, and civil engineering are sharpening the picture of our dynamic planet – as can be seen in the program of the 5th International GOCE User Workshop, taking place Nov. 25-28 in Paris.

The GOCE satellite made 27,000 orbits between its launch in March 2009 and re-entry in November 2013, measuring tiny variations in the gravitational field that correspond to uneven distributions of mass in Earth’s oceans, continents, and deep interior. Some 800 million observations went into the computation of the final model, which is composed of more than 75,000 parameters representing the global gravitational field with a spatial resolution of around 70 kilometers. The precision of the model improved over time, as each release incorporated more data. Centimeter accuracy has now been achieved for variations of the geoid – a gravity-derived figure of Earth’s surface that serves as a global reference for sea level and heights – in a model based solely on GOCE data.

The fifth and last data release benefited from two special phases of observation. After its first three years of operation, the satellite’s orbit was lowered from 255 to 225 kilometers, increasing the sensitivity of gravity measurements to reveal even more detailed structures of the gravity field. And through most of the satellite’s final plunge through the atmosphere, some instruments continued to report measurements that have sparked intense interest far beyond the “gravity community” – for example, among researchers concerned with aerospace engineering, atmospheric sciences, and space debris.

Moving on: new science, future missions


Through the lens of Earth’s gravitational field, scientists can image our planet in a way that is complementary to approaches that rely on light, magnetism, or seismic waves. They can determine the speed of ocean currents from space, monitor rising sea level and melting ice sheets, uncover hidden features of continental geology, even peer into the convection machine that drives plate tectonics. Topics like these dominate the more than 100 talks scheduled for the 5th GOCE User Workshop, with technical talks on measurements and models playing a smaller role. “I see this as a sign of success, that the emphasis has shifted decisively to the user community,” says Prof. Roland Pail, director of the Institute for Astronomical and Physical Geodesy at TUM.

This shift can be seen as well among the topics covered by TUM researchers, such as estimates of the elastic thickness of the continents from GOCE gravity models, mass trends in Antarctica from global gravity fields, and a scientific roadmap toward worldwide unification of height systems. For his part Pail – who was responsible for delivery of the data products – chose to speak about consolidating science requirements for a next-generation gravity field mission.


TUM has organized a public symposium on “Seeing Earth in the ‘light’ of gravity” for the 2015 Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science in San Jose, California. This session, featuring speakers from Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany and Italy, takes place on Feb. 14, 2015. (See http://meetings.aaas.org/.)

This research was supported in part by the European Space Agency.

Publication:


“EGM_TIM_RL05: An Independent Geoid with Centimeter Accuracy Purely Based on the GOCE Mission,” Jan Martin Brockmann, Norbert Zehentner, Eduard Höck, Roland Pail, Ina Loth, Torsten Mayer-Gürr, and Wolf-Dieter Shuh. Geophysical Research Letters 2014, doi:10.1002/2014GL061904.

GOCE Earth explorer satellite to look at the Earth’s surface and core





GOCE positioned on the rotary table for alignment check, during launch campaign at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. - Credits: ESA
GOCE positioned on the rotary table for alignment check, during launch campaign at the Plesetsk Cosmodrome. – Credits: ESA

The European Space Agency is about to launch the most sophisticated mission ever to investigate the Earth’s gravitational field and to map the reference shape of our planet – the geoid – with unprecedented resolution and accuracy.



The Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) will be placed onto a low altitude near sun-synchronous orbit by a Russian Rockot vehicle launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Northern Russia, some 800 km north of Moscow. Lift-off is scheduled to take place at 16:21 CEST (14:21 UTC) on Wednesday 10 September. The launcher is operated by Eurockot Launch Services, a joint venture between EADS Astrium and the Khrunichev Space Centre (Russia).



ESA’s 1-tonne spacecraft carries a set of six state-of-the-art high-sensitivity accelerometers to measure the components of the gravity field along all three axes. The data collected will provide a high-resolution map of the geoid (the reference surface of the planet) and of gravitational anomalies. Such a map will not only greatly improve our knowledge and understanding of the Earth’s internal structure, but will also be used as a much better reference for ocean and climate studies, including sea-level changes, oceanic circulation and ice caps dynamics survey. Numerous applications are expected in climatology, oceanography and geophysics, as well as for geodetic and positioning activities.



To make this mission possible, ESA, its industrial partners (45 European companies led by Thales Alenia Space) and the science community had to overcome an impressive technical challenge by designing a satellite that will orbit the Earth close enough to gather high-accuracy gravitational data while being able to filter out disturbances caused by the remaining traces of the atmosphere in low Earth orbit (at an altitude of only 260 km). This resulted in a slender 5-m-long arrowhead shape for aerodynamics with low power ion thrusters to compensate for the atmospheric drag.


GOCE is the first Core Mission of the Earth Explorer programme undertaken by ESA in 1999 to foster research on the Earth’s atmosphere, biosphere, hydrosphere, cryosphere and interior, on their interactions and on the impact of human activities on these natural processes. It will be the first in a whole series of Earth Explorer missions with five launches to take place within the next two years.



Two more Core Missions, selected to address specific topics of major public concern are already under development: ADM-Aeolus for atmospheric dynamics (2010), and EarthCARE to investigate the Earth’s radiative balance (2013). Three smaller Earth Explorer Opportunity Missions are also in preparation: CryoSat-2 to measure ice sheet thickness (2009), SMOS to study soil moisture and ocean salinity (2009) and Swarm to survey the evolution of the magnetic field (2010).



On the occasion of the launch of GOCE, ESA will open a Press Centre at ESA/ESRIN in Frascati, Italy from 14:00 to 20:00, hosting a launch event from 15:30 to 18:15.



A live televised transmission of the launch will bring images from Plesetsk and from mission control at ESA/ESOC in Darmstadt, Germany to broadcasters (further details on the TV transmission at http://television.esa.int). ESA senior management and programme specialists will be on hand at ESRIN for explanations and interviews. The general public can also follow the video transmission web-streamed at: http://www.esa.int/goce.