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Gravity

Related Mission
What is Gravity?

Artist concept of Gravity Probe B orbiting the Earth to measure space-time, a four-dimensional description of the universe including height, width, length, and time. We can think of gravity as the invisible force that pulls two masses together. When we speak of mass, we're talking about the amount of matter in a substance. Density is a measure of how much mass is concentrated in a given space. Sir Isaac Newton discovered that as an object's mass increases, the gravitational attraction of that object increases. For example, a container filled with a more dense material like granite rock has more mass and thus more gravitational attraction than that same container filled with water. The Earth's Moon has considerably less mass than the Earth itself. Not only is the Moon smaller than the Earth, but it is only about 60 percent as dense as Earth. Thus, the gravitational attraction on the Moon is much less than it is here on Earth, and a person weighs less on the Moon. This weaker gravity is why we have the famous images of the Apollo astronauts taking "one giant leap for mankind" on the Moon's surface. On planet Earth, we tend to think of the gravitational effect as being the same no matter where we are on the planet. We certainly don't see variations anywhere near as dramatic as those between the Earth and the Moon. But the truth is, the Earth's topography is highly variable with mountains, valleys, plains, and deep ocean trenches. As a consequence of this variable topography, the density of Earth's surface varies. These fluctuations in density cause slight variations in the gravity field.

How is Gravity Measured from Space?

GRACE On Orbit Rendering (Credit: NASA)

 

The Gravity Recovery And Climate Experiment (GRACE) was launched in 2002 to measure Earth's gravity field. The two identical GRACE satellites orbit one behind the other in the same orbital plane at approximate distance of 220 kilometers (137 miles). As the pair circles the Earth, areas of slightly stronger gravity (greater mass concentration) affect the lead satellite first, pulling it away from the trailing satellite. As the satellites continue along their orbital path, the trailing satellite is pulled toward the lead satellite as it passes over the gravity anomaly. The change in distance would certainly be imperceptible to our eyes, but an extremely precise microwave ranging system on GRACE detects these minuscule changes in the distance between the satellites. A highly accurate measuring device known as an accelerometer, located at each satellite's center of mass, measures the non-gravitational accelerations (such as those due to atmospheric drag) so that only accelerations cased by gravity are considered. Satellite Global Positioning System (GPS) receivers determine the exact position of the satellite over the Earth to within a centimeter or less. Members of the GRACE science team can download all this information from the satellites, and use it to construct monthly maps of the Earth's average gravity field during the planned five-year mission.