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Astrium-built GOCE platform now surfs for climate research


Plesetsk/Friedrichshafen.– The gravitational field ‘surfer’ GOCE (Gravity-Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer), built under prime contractorship Thales Alenia Space, has been successfully launched into space from Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Russia. It was brought into orbit by a Rockot launcher provided by Eurockot (a joint ventrure between Astrium and Khrunichev) at 15:21 h CET (17:21 p.m. local time). At 16:53h satellite reached its orbit, separated from Rockot´s upper stage Breeze and send its first signals.

* European Space Agency satellite GOCE successfully launched into space from Plesetsk

* Astrium satellite platform enables highly accurate flight path
* Gravitation mission focuses on ocean currents and magma flow

The European research satellite will investigate the seas, oceans and interior of the Earth from an altitude of about 250 kilometres for at least 24 months. GOCE was implemented by an international industrial consortium led by Thales Alenia Space on behalf of the European Space Agency (ESA). As a core team member Astrium in Friedrichshafen contributed significantly to the project by building the satellite platform. Astrium Spain has delivered the carbon-fibre structure for the platform.

The measurement data delivered by the satellite will enable the Earth’s gravitational field to be measured more accurately than ever before. The information will make it possible not only to study the structure of the Earth’s interior in greater detail, but also to measure the potential rise in the level of the ocean and to analyse ocean currents that are of decisive importance to our climate. In this way, GOCE will help to improve current climate models and forecasts.

Satellites offer the only possible way to survey the entire gravitational force field of the Earth uniformly. To be capable of carrying out such gravitational measurements as perfectly as possible, the GOCE satellite was designed in such a way that it can fly in a particularly low orbit above the Earth’s surface. This is where the satellite platform, for which Astrium is responsible, plays a special role: The instruments and the satellite body together form a whole, and there are no movable, mechanical parts anywhere inside the satellite. This means it can travel steadily and smoothly along its trajectory without any interfering acceleration caused by tiny movements inside it, which could falsify the measurements taken. Aerodynamic deviations due to the residual atmosphere will also be minimized, and any orbital deviations not caused by gravitational differences will be offset by electric ion thrusters triggered by an active, continuous, high-precision attitude (drag-free) and orbit control system.

GOCE ‘surfs’ in the gravitational field

The Earth’s gravitational field is not entirely symmetrical. Rather like the surface of the ocean, it has numerous ‘bumps’ or ‘dents’ (referred to by experts as ‘anomalies’). These put GOCE on a slightly wavy trajectory, much like a surfer in the sea. In the region of stronger gravitational force, GOCE will slightly lose height and speed up, whereas in regions of weaker gravitational force it will climb to a higher orbit and slow down. From this trajectory, it will be possible to derive a global ‘map’ of the Earth’s gravitational field (a geoid) with exceptional accuracy and resolution.


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