Simulation study of a follow-on gravity mission to GRACE
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The gravity recovery and climate experiment (GRACE) has been providing monthly estimates of the Earth’s time-variable gravity field since its launch in March 2002. The GRACE gravity estimates are used to study temporal mass variations on global and regional scales, which are largely caused by a redistribution of water mass in the Earth system. The accuracy of the GRACE gravity fields are primarily limited by the satellite-to-satellite range-rate measurement noise, accelerometer errors, attitude errors, orbit errors, and temporal aliasing caused by un-modeled high-frequency variations in the gravity signal. Recent work by Ball Aerospace & Technologies Corp., Boulder, CO has resulted in the successful development of an interferometric laser ranging system to specifically address the limitations of the K-band microwave ranging system that provides the satellite-to-satellite measurements for the GRACE mission. Full numerical simulations are performed for several possible configurations of a GRACE Follow-On (GFO) mission to determine if a future satellite gravity recovery mission equipped with a laser ranging system will provide better estimates of time-variable gravity, thus benefiting many areas of Earth systems research. The laser ranging system improves the range-rate measurement precision to ~0.6 nm/s as compared to ~0.2 μm/s for the GRACE K-band microwave ranging instrument. Four different mission scenarios are simulated to investigate the effect of the better instrument at two different altitudes. The first pair of simulated missions is flown at GRACE altitude (~480 km) assuming on-board accelerometers with the same noise characteristics as those currently used for GRACE. The second pair of missions is flown at an altitude of ~250 km which requires a drag-free system to prevent satellite re-entry. In addition to allowing a lower satellite altitude, the drag-free system also reduces the errors associated with the accelerometer. All simulated mission scenarios assume a two satellite co-orbiting pair similar to GRACE in a near-polar, near-circular orbit. A method for local time variable gravity recovery through mass concentration blocks (mascons) is used to form simulated gravity estimates for Greenland and the Amazon region for three GFO configurations and GRACE. Simulation results show that the increased precision of the laser does not improve gravity estimation when flown with on-board accelerometers at the same altitude and spacecraft separation as GRACE, even when time-varying background models are not included. This study also shows that only modest improvement is realized for the best-case scenario (laser, low-altitude, drag-free) as compared to GRACE due to temporal aliasing errors. These errors are caused by high-frequency variations in the hydrology signal and imperfections in the atmospheric, oceanographic, and tidal models which are used to remove unwanted signal. This work concludes that applying the updated technologies alone will not immediately advance the accuracy of the gravity estimates. If the scientific objectives of a GFO mission require more accurate gravity estimates, then future work should focus on improvements in the geophysical models, and ways in which the mission design or data processing could reduce the effects of temporal aliasing.
KeywordsGRACE Time-variable gravity Mass transport Satellite gravimetry
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