Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer
Artist's view of GOCE. Its sleek, aerodynamic design led it to be dubbed the 'Ferrari of space'[1]
Mission typeGravitational research
COSPAR ID2009-013A Edit this at Wikidata
SATCAT no.34602
Mission durationPlanned: 20 months
Final: 4 years, 7 months, 3 days
Spacecraft properties
ManufacturerThales Alenia Space
EADS Astrium
Launch mass1,077 kg (2,374 lb)
Dry mass872 kg (1,922 lb)
Dimensions5.3 m × 2.3 m (17.4 ft × 7.5 ft)
Power1,600 watts
Start of mission
Launch date17 March 2009, 14:21 (2009-03-17UTC14:21) UTC[2]
Launch sitePlesetsk Cosmodrome
ContractorEurockot Launch Services GmbH
End of mission
DisposalOrbital decay
Declared21 October 2013 (2013-10-22) UTC[3]
Last contact10 November 2013, 22:42 UTC[4]
Decay date11 November 2013, 00:16 UTC[5]
Orbital parameters
Reference systemGeocentric
Perigee altitude254.9 km (158.4 mi)[6]
Apogee altitude254.9 km (158.4 mi)[6]
Inclination96.7 degrees
Epoch29 June 2010[6]
BandS band
Frequency2 GHz
Bandwidthup to 1.2 Mbit/s download
up to 4 kbit/s upload
GOCE mission insignia
Insignia for the GOCE mission

The Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) was the first of ESA's Living Planet Programme heavy satellites intended to map in unprecedented detail the Earth's gravity field. The spacecraft's primary instrumentation was a highly sensitive gravity gradiometer consisting of three pairs of accelerometers which measured gravitational gradients along three orthogonal axes.

Launched on 17 March 2009, GOCE mapped the deep structure of the Earth's mantle and probed hazardous volcanic regions. It brought new insight into ocean behaviour; this in particular, was a major driver for the mission. By combining the gravity data with information about sea surface height gathered by other satellite altimeters, scientists were able to track the direction and speed of geostrophic ocean currents. The low orbit and high accuracy of the system greatly improved the known accuracy and spatial resolution of the geoid (the theoretical surface of equal gravitational potential on the Earth).

The satellite's unique arrow shape and fins helped keep GOCE stable as it flew through the thermosphere at a comparatively low altitude of 255 kilometres (158 mi). Additionally, an ion propulsion system continuously compensated for the variable deceleration due to air drag without the vibration of a conventional chemically powered rocket engine, thus limiting the errors in gravity gradient measurements caused by non-gravitational forces and restoring the path of the craft as closely as possible to a purely inertial trajectory.

After running out of propellant, the satellite began dropping out of orbit and made an uncontrolled re-entry on 11 November 2013.[1]

Discoveries and applications

Mission objectives

Gravity map and model

The final gravity map and model of the geoid will provide users worldwide with well-defined data product that will lead to:


The first Earth global gravity model based on GOCE data was presented at ESA's Living Planet Symposium, in June 2010.[6]

Initial results of the GOCE satellite mission were presented at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) 2010 Fall (Autumn) Meeting by Dr Rory Bingham from Newcastle University, UK. The maps produced from the GOCE data show ocean currents in much finer detail than had been available previously.[12] Even very small details like the Mann Eddy in the North Atlantic were visible in the data,[13] as was the effect of Hurricane Igor in 2010.[14] Detailed analysis of GOCE's thruster and accelerometer data serendipitously revealed that it had detected the infrasound waves generated by the 2011 Tōhoku earthquake (whereupon it inadvertently became the first seismograph in orbit).[15]

Later results from the GOCE data exposed details in the Earth's mantle including mantle plumes, ancient subduction zones, and remnants of the Tethys Ocean.[16]

Subsequent analysis of GOCE data has also provided new information about the geological makeup of the Antarctic continent, including the detection of ancient continent remnants and at least three cratons beneath the Antarctic ice.[17][18][19]



The first launch attempt on 16 March 2009 was aborted due to a malfunction with the launch tower.[20]

GOCE was launched on 17 March 2009 at 14:21 UTC from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in northern Russia aboard a Rokot/Briz-KM vehicle.[21] The Rokot is a modified UR-100N intercontinental ballistic missile that was decommissioned after the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty. The launcher used the two lower liquid fuel stages of the original missile and was equipped with a Briz-KM third stage developed for precise orbit injection. GOCE was launched into a Sun-synchronous dusk-dawn orbit with an inclination of 96.7° and an ascending node at 18:00. Separation from the launcher was at 295 km. The satellite's orbit then decayed over a period of 45 days to an operational altitude, planned at 270 km. During this time, the spacecraft was commissioned and the electrical propulsion system checked for reliability in attitude control[needs update].[22]


Model of GOCE

In February 2010 a fault was discovered in the satellite's computer, which meant controllers were forced to switch control to the backup computer.

In July 2010, GOCE suffered a serious communications malfunction, when the satellite suddenly failed to downlink scientific data to its receiving stations. Extensive investigations by experts from ESA and industry revealed that the issue was almost certainly related to a communication link between the processor module and the telemetry modules of the main computer.[23] The recovery was completed in September 2010: as part of the action plan, the temperature of the floor hosting the computers was raised by some 7 °C (13 °F), resulting in restoration of normal communications.[24]

In November 2010, the due completion date for the original 20-month mission before it was delayed by the glitches, it was decided to extend the mission lifetime until the end of 2012 in order to complete the original work and carry out a further 18-month mission to improve the collected data.[25]

In November 2012 the orbit was lowered from 255 to 235 km (158 to 146 mi) to get higher resolution data, at which time fuel remained for another 50 weeks.[26]

End of mission and re-entry

In May 2013 a further lowering to 229 km (142 mi) took place.

The satellite ran out of its xenon propellant in October 2013, at which time it would take 2–3 weeks to re-enter.[27] On 18 October 2013, ESA reported that the pressure in the fuel system of GOCE's ion engine had dropped below 2.5 bar, which is the nominal operating pressure required to fire the engine.[28] Subsequently, end of mission was formally declared on 21 October when the spacecraft ran out of fuel; deprived of xenon, the ion drive stopped working at 03:16 UTC.[3][29]

On 9 November 2013, a published report indicated that the satellite was expected to re-enter within a day or two.[30][31] By this date, the perigee altitude had decayed to 155 km (96 mi).[32]

On 10 November, ESA expected re-entry to occur between 18:30 and 24:00 UTC that day, with the most probable impact ground swath largely running over ocean and polar regions.[33]

Its descending orbit on 11 November 2013 passed over Siberia, the western Pacific Ocean, the eastern Indian Ocean and Antarctica.[34][35] The satellite finally disintegrated around 00:16 UTC on 11 November near the Falkland Islands.[5][36]



The satellite's main payload was the Electrostatic Gravity Gradiometer (EGG) to measure the gravity field of Earth. This instrument consisted of three pairs of capacitive accelerometers arranged in three dimensions that responded to tiny variations in the 'gravitational tug' of the Earth as it traveled along its orbital path. Because of their different position in the gravitational field they all experienced the gravitational acceleration of the Earth slightly differently. The three axes of the gradiometer allowed the simultaneous measurement of the five independent components of the gravity gradient tensor.

Other payload was an onboard GPS receiver used as a Satellite-to-Satellite Tracking Instrument (SSTI); a compensation system for all non-gravitational forces acting on the spacecraft. The satellite was also equipped with a laser retroreflector to enable tracking by ground-based Satellite laser ranging stations.[37]

Power and propulsion

GOCE flares to magnitude +2 as the 67.5 degree solar panel briefly mirrors sunlight (3 January 2010, 17:24:23.15 UTC).

GOCE's 5 × 1.1 m (16 × 4 ft) frame had fixed solar panels covering its sun-facing side, which produced 1,300 watts of power.[38] The panels were shaped to act as fins, stabilising the spacecraft while it orbited through the residual air in the thermosphere.

The ion propulsion electric engine, designed and built at QinetiQ's space centre in Farnborough, England, ejected xenon ions at velocities exceeding 40,000 m/s (140,000 km/h; 89,000 mph), which compensated for the orbital decay losses. GOCE's mission ended when the 40 kg (88 lb) xenon fuel tank emptied.[7] The dual Kaufman-type ion thrusters could produce up to 20 millinewtons (0.0045 lbf) of thrust.[39]

Although its predicted lifetime was 20 months, an ESA report in June 2010 suggested that unusually low solar activity (meaning a calmer upper atmosphere, and hence less drag on the craft) meant the fuel would last longer than its predicted 20 months—possibly into 2014. In reality, the end of mission was formally declared on 21 October 2013 after 55 months, with the final 11 months in a lower orbit (with greater air density and therefore greater fuel use).[40]

See also


  1. ^ a b "GOCE completes its mission". European Space Agency. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
  2. ^ "GOCE launched and in orbit". European Space Agency. 17 March 2009. Retrieved 10 October 2013.
  3. ^ a b "ESA's GOCE mission comes to an end" (Press release). European Space Agency. 21 October 2013. No. 33-2013. Retrieved 10 July 2017.
  4. ^ Scuka, Daniel (11 November 2013). "ESOC update – 23:50CET". European Space Agency. Retrieved 28 December 2016.
  5. ^ a b Scuka, Daniel (11 November 2013). "GOCE re-entry region". European Space Agency. Retrieved 28 December 2016.
  6. ^ a b c d e "GOCE giving new insights into Earth's gravity". European Space Agency. 29 June 2010. Retrieved 29 June 2010.
  7. ^ a b "ESA's Gravity Mission GOCE". European Space Agency. 16 October 2008. Archived from the original on 10 September 2014. Retrieved 26 October 2008.
  8. ^ Drinkwater, Mark; Haagmans, Roger; Kern, Michael; Muzi, Danilo; Floberghagen, Rune (February 2008). "GOCE: Obtaining a Portrait of Earth's Most Intimate Features" (PDF). Bulletin (133). European Space Agency: 4–13.
  9. ^ Drinkwater, M. R.; Floberghagen, R.; Haagmans, R.; Muzi, D.; Popescu, A. (July 2003). "GOCE: ESA's First Earth Explorer Core Mission" (PDF). Space Science Reviews. 108 (1–2). Kluwer Academic: 419–432. Bibcode:2003SSRv..108..419D. doi:10.1023/A:1026104216284. S2CID 121029480.
  10. ^ Johannessen, J. A.; Balmino, G.; Le Provost, C.; Rummel, R.; Sabadini, R.; et al. (July 2003). "The European Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer Satellite Mission: Its Impact on Geophysics" (PDF). Surveys in Geophysics. 24 (4): 339–386. Bibcode:2003SGeo...24..339J. doi:10.1023/B:GEOP.0000004264.04667.5e. hdl:1956/3796. S2CID 55391538.
  11. ^ "GOCE scientific objectives". European Space Agency. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
  12. ^ Bingham, R. J.; Knudsen, P.; Andersen, O. B.; Pail, R. (December 2010). Using GOCE to estimate the mean North Atlantic circulation (Invited). American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2010. 13–17 December 2010. San Francisco, California. Bibcode:2010AGUFM.G33B..08B.
  13. ^ Amos, Jonathan (21 December 2010). "Goce gravity mission traces ocean circulation". BBC News. Retrieved 21 December 2010.
  14. ^ "ESA missions highlighted at world's largest scientific conference". European Space Agency. 17 December 2010. Retrieved 22 December 2010.
  15. ^ "1-tonne GOCE satellite falls to Earth Sunday night". CBC News. 21 March 2009. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
  16. ^ Amos, Jonathan (27 January 2014). "Europe's Goce gravity satellite probes Earth's mantle". BBC News. Retrieved 27 January 2014.
  17. ^ "ESA's gravity-mapper reveals relics of ancient continents under Antarctic ice". ESA. 7 November 2018. Retrieved 13 March 2019.
  18. ^ Andrews, Robin George (23 November 2018). "Beneath Antarctica's Ice Is a Graveyard of Dead Continents". New York Times. Retrieved 13 March 2019.
  19. ^ Ebbing, Jörg; Haas, Peter; Ferraccioli, Fausto; Pappa, Folker; Szwillus, Wolfgang; Bouman, Johannes (5 November 2018). "Earth tectonics as seen by GOCE - Enhanced satellite gravity gradient imaging". Scientific Reports. 8 (1). Nature Research: 16356. Bibcode:2018NatSR...816356E. doi:10.1038/s41598-018-34733-9. PMC 6218487. PMID 30397250.
  20. ^ Bonacina, Franco (16 March 2009). "Launch of ESA's gravity mapping satellite delayed". European Space Agency.
  21. ^ Bonacina, Franco (17 March 2009). "ESA launches first Earth Explorer mission GOCE". European Space Agency.
  22. ^ Fehringer, Michael; Andre, Gerard; Lamarre, Daniel; Maeusli, Damien (February 2008). "A Jewel in ESA's Crown" (PDF). Bulletin (133). European Space Agency: 14–23.
  23. ^ Amos, Jonathan (21 August 2010). "Computer blow to Europe's Goce gravity satellite". BBC News. Retrieved 22 August 2010.
  24. ^ "GOCE gravity mission back in action". European Space Agency. 7 September 2010. Retrieved 29 September 2010.
  25. ^ "ESA's gravity mission granted 18-month extension". European Space Agency. 25 November 2010.
  26. ^ Winder, Jenny (19 November 2012). "GOCE – How Low Can It Go?". Universe Today.
  27. ^ "ESA's GOCE mission to end this year". European Space Agency. 13 September 2013. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
  28. ^ Scuka, Daniel; Steiger, Christoph (18 October 2013). "GOCE fuel steadily runs out". European Space Agency. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
  29. ^ Scuka, Daniel; Steiger, Christoph (21 October 2017). "Update on GOCE". European Space Agency. Retrieved 10 July 2017.
  30. ^ Allman, Tim (9 November 2013). "'Don't panic': One-tonne satellite falling to Earth". BBC News. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
  31. ^ Henderson, Greg (9 November 2013). "'Ferrari Of Space' Crashing Back To Earth — Maybe Tomorrow". NPR. Retrieved 10 November 2013.
  32. ^ "GOCE - Orbit". Heavens Above. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
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  35. ^ Smith, Matt (10 November 2013). "Falling European satellite burns up upon re-entry". CNN. Retrieved 11 November 2013.
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  37. ^ Strugarek, Dariusz; Sosnica, Krzysztof; Jaeggi, Adrian (January 2019). "Characteristics of GOCE orbits based on Satellite Laser Ranging". Advances in Space Research. 63 (1). Elsevier: 417–431. Bibcode:2019AdSpR..63..417S. doi:10.1016/j.asr.2018.08.033. S2CID 125791718.
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  39. ^ "GOCE Mission". European Space Agency. Retrieved 16 April 2017.
  40. ^ Amos, Jonathan (28 June 2010). "Goce satellite views Earth's gravity in high definition". BBC News. Retrieved 30 June 2010.