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Gravity mission down under

Artist's impression of the twin GRACE satellites

Artist's impression of the twin GRACE satellites, which measure Earth's gravity field.

  • Funding for Australia to develop laser system
  • For use on the GRACE Follow On science satellite
  • GRACE measures Earth’s gravity field

The Australian National University has welcomed the announcement of $4.7 million in funding for the next stage in the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellite program, which will include laser testing and results analysis at the University.

GRACE measurements reveal melting of the polar ice caps and are used to monitor changes in ground water.

The announcement was made by Senator the Hon Kim Carr, Minister for Innovation, Industry, Science and Research, as part of a suite of funding announcements from the Australian Space Research Program (ASRP).

Dr Paul Tregoning

Dr Paul Tregoning's team will analyse the data from the new GRACE mission.

The project, led by The Australian National University, will bring together expertise from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, EOS Space Systems, the CSIRO’s Australian Centre for Precision Optics, the National Measurement Institute and Germany’s Albert Einstein Institute.

Researchers will develop prototype hardware for a laser ranging system to fly on NASA’s GRACE Follow On mission. GRACE is a satellite mission that has provided new and unexpected insights into the natural processes of Earth.

The laser system will be developed by researchers from the ANU Centre for Gravitational Physics led by Dr Daniel Shaddock, while a team led by Dr Paul Tregoning from the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences will analyse the data from the new mission.

“This new laser system for GRACE Follow On will improve the measurement by a factor of 25 compared to the original GRACE mission,” said Dr Shaddock.

“Australian researchers will partner closely with NASA and German scientists to ensure that our system will perform in the harsh space environment.”

“This funding will make Australia a partner in a space mission of global importance,” added Dr Tregoning.

Gravity mapping satellite

The joint NASA-German Aerospace Centre GRACE project is a five-year mission to precisely measure Earth’s shifting water masses and map their effects on Earth’s gravity field.

It measures Earth’s gravity field by measuring the separation between Dr Paul Tregoning’s with an accuracy of one millionth of a metre (less than 1/10th the width of a human hair).

GRACE geoid

GRACE map showing how the Earth's gravity field is not smooth, but bumpy due to uneven distribution of mass.

Launched March 17, 2002, GRACE senses minute variations in Earth’s surface mass and corresponding variations in Earth’s gravitational pull.

The monthly gravity maps generated by Grace will be up to 1,000 times more accurate than current maps, substantially improving the accuracy of many techniques used by oceanographers, hydrologists, glaciologists, geologists and other scientists to study phenomena that influence climate.

Environment studies

“The GRACE mission has already provided significant and valuable data to researchers, including allowing us—for the very first time—to see just how much water has been lost from the Murray Darling Basin as a result of drought,” said Dr Tregoning.

“The GRACE data showed us just how serious that problem was, and that we had lost some 200 cubic kilometres of water over six years; that’s the equivalent of 400 Sydney Harbours.”

“Obviously, information like this is essential for policy makers to plan for a healthy and prosperous future for the country,” said Dr Tregoning.

“But the funding also allows for fantastic opportunities for researchers to analyse this data and work on an international space project. It will allow local academics to show that Australian research is competitive in the international space arena,” he said.

Adapted from information issued by ANU. Photos by Cole Bennets / NASA.

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