Coolest Satellite to Orbit Earth, Ever

Feature: highly accurate mapping

The European Space Agency is set to launch the Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) Star Destroyer satellite on September 10th. This advanced mission will be the most sophisticated piece of kit ever to orbit the Earth, investigating the Earth’s gravitational field. It will perform a highly accurate mapping campaign, producing a high resolution reference shape of the geoid (i.e. the shape of our planet). The mission will be unprecedented, but that’s not the reason why I’m drawing attention to it…



Only last week I remarked on the coolness of the 2013 Mars rover mission in the shape of the dazzling Pasteur Rover (set to drill two-meters into Mars), and today with the announcement of the launch GOCE, it looks like ESA has done it again. They’ve encased their state-of-the-art instrumentation inside something that belongs in a science fiction movie, more reminiscent of the Imperial Star Destroyer from Star Wars than a tin box satellite…

 Coolest Satellite to Orbit Earth, Ever

When someone says “satellite” I think: a box, a couple of antennae, a flimsy-looking solar panel or two, possibly a communication dish – but that’s it. To be honest many of the telecommunication satellites look like they’ve been botched together with twine and hot glue; aesthetics is never a huge consideration for spacecraft. At the end of the day, who really cares what a satellite or planetary probe looks like? Well I do, and this is why.

When you build a fantastic looking spaceship like GOCE, it really sets the imagination alight. I’ve just been browsing through the multimedia directory on the ESA website and I can hardly contain my excitement for this European launch. I mean, who would have thought that the slow motion animation of a planetary mission like GOCE could carry off the slow, iconic motion of a classic science fiction warship, passing through the wide-angle view of the camera lens (like this one. And this one, and this one!). I suppose it helps when the ESA graphic artists are being paid overtime to produce media as good as this (or this. Or this!).

The biggest attraction for me is that GOCE uses its solar panels on one side of its bodywork (the Sun facing side, obviously). Often, satellites have their delicate solar arrays awkwardly sticking out (even the Space Station suffers from this affliction), centering around the middle bundle of randomly attached boxes and probes. But not GOCE. Its instrumentation is hidden along the axis of the main body of the ship, with solar cells implanted to its outer surface like chain mail armor. The main reason for this sleek, bullet-like look is to reduce the atmospheric drag it will experience in low Earth orbit (at 260 km). To further prevent atmospheric drag causing a problem, GOCE will sport some low-power ion thrusters to keep it out of harms way.

So let’s look forward to when this awesome mission launches on board a Russian Rockot from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in Northern Russia, 800 km north of Moscow at 14:21 UTC, September 10th.

In brief:
Made by? An industrial consortium of 45 companies distributed over 13 European countries.
Why? To map Earth’s gravity field in unprecedented detail.
Altitude? Low Earth orbit, 260 km.
Weight? 1100 kg (1.1 tonnes).
Cross-sectional area? 1m2 to reduce atmospheric drag.
Length? 5 metres.
Thrust? Low power ion engines.

Source: ESA press release