London, September 23 (ANI): A European satellite is all set to begin a quest to make the most detailed global map of the Earth's gravity field.
According to a report by BBC News, known as the Goce satellite, the arrow-shaped spacecraft can sense tiny variations in the planet's tug as it sweeps around the world at the very low altitude of just 255km.
The map will help scientists understand better how the oceans move.
It should also give them a universal reference to compare heights anywhere across the globe.
Goce was launched from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in north-west Russia in March.
Engineers have since commissioned the spacecraft, satisfying themselves that all its systems are working properly.
But, the satellite has had to wait until now for the right conditions to start its science campaign.
"We've been in the so-called eclipse mode where the Sun doesn't shine fully on the solar panels, but now we are entering the measurement mode," said Dr Volker Liebig, the director of Earth observation at the European Space Agency (ESA).
"Being able to fly low is very good for the measurements, and the Sun is so low in its activity at the moment that we can fly lower than we expected; and that will give us a better signal," he told BBC News.
The data return will be the first to come from ESA's Earth Explorer programme, which is sending up a fleet of small satellites tasked with acquiring key information on issues of environmental concern.
The precision with which Goce expects to make its gravity measurements means every disturbance the satellite could experience has to be minimised.
This includes avoiding the rapid and deep swings in temperature that come from different parts of the spacecraft going into and out of sunlight.
To make its map, the satellite carries a set of six state-of-the-art accelerometers housed in a device called a gradiometer.
As the spacecraft "bumps" through Earth's gravity field, the accelerometers sense fantastically small deviations - as small as one part in 10,000,000,000,000 of the gravity experienced at the Earth's surface.
But to make the most of this sensitivity, Goce flies extremely low - much lower than is normal for Earth observation satellites.
According to Dr Rune Floberghagen, ESA's Goce mission manager, "We've taken our measurements and we've compared them with the state-of-the-art models of the Earth's gravity field that are available today. And what we see is what we hoped to see: our measurements basically follow the trend but certainly do contain a lot more high-frequency, finer-scale information." (ANI)