Journal of Geodesy

, Volume 83, Issue 6, pp 569–581 | Cite as

Alternative mission architectures for a gravity recovery satellite mission

Original Article


Since its launch in 2002, the Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission has been providing measurements of the time-varying Earth gravity field. The GRACE mission architecture includes two satellites in near-circular, near-polar orbits separated in the along-track direction by approximately 220 km (e.g. collinear). A microwave ranging instrument measures changes in the distance between the spacecraft, while accelerometers on each spacecraft are used to measure changes in distance due to non-gravitational forces. The fact that the satellites are in near-polar orbits coupled with the fact that the inter-satellite range measurements are directed in the along-track direction, contributes to longitudinal striping in the estimated gravity fields. This paper examines four candidate mission architectures for a future gravity recovery satellite mission to assess their potential in measuring the gravity field more accurately than GRACE. All satellites were assumed to have an improved measurement system, with an inter-satellite laser ranging instrument and a drag-free system for removal of non-gravitational accelerations. Four formations were studied: a two-satellite collinear pair similar to GRACE; a four-satellite architecture with two collinear pairs; a two-satellite cartwheel formation; and a four-satellite cartwheel formation. A cartwheel formation consists of satellites performing in-plane, relative elliptical motion about their geometric center, so that inter-satellite measurements are, at times, directed radially (e.g. parallel to the direction towards the center of the Earth) rather than along-track. Radial measurements, unlike along-track measurements, have equal sensitivity to mass distribution in all directions along the Earth’s surface and can lead to higher spatial resolution in the derived gravity field. The ability of each architecture to recover the gravity field was evaluated using numerical simulations performed with JPL’s GIPSY-OASIS software package. Thirty days of data were used to estimate gravity fields complete to degree and order 60. Evaluations were done for 250 and 400 km nominal orbit altitudes. The sensitivity of the recovered gravity field to under-sampled effects was assessed using simulated errors in atmospheric/ocean dealiasing (AOD) models. Results showed the gravity field errors associated with the four-satellite cartwheel formation were approximately one order of magnitude lower than the collinear satellite pair when only measurement system errors were included. When short-period AOD model errors were introduced, the gravity field errors for each formation were approximately the same. The cartwheel formations eliminated most of the longitudinal striping seen in the gravity field errors. A covariance analysis showed the error spectrum of the cartwheel formations to be lower and more isotropic than that of the collinear formations.


GRACE Cartwheel orbits Temporal gravity Aliasing GRACE follow-on mission 


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Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2008

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Colorado Center for Astrodynamics ResearchUniversity of Colorado at BoulderBoulderUSA
  2. 2.Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of TechnologyPasadenaUSA

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