Cute but sad Dumbo octopus

New gravity-field satellite looks like a Battlestar Galactica Viper

I greatly dig satellites, to the point where I actually spend time sitting around comparing which ones are cooler. To date, my #1 favorite is Gravity Probe B, largely because it contains roundest, smoothest spheres ever created by humanity. But today I heard about a satellite that has moved in my #2 slot.

Step forward, Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer! Otherwise known as GOCE, this satellite is designed to measure fluctuations in Earth’s gravity. Because the planet is irregularly shaped, and different parts are composed of more or less dense rock, the pull of gravity is different all over the globe. These changes are, of course, derangedly small, so GOCE is equipped with three accelerometers that can detect even-yet-more-derangedly-small pertubations in The Force. As one of its designing engineers explained to the BBC:

“Imagine a snowflake, which has a fraction of a gram, slowly falling down on to the deck of a supertanker. The acceleration that the supertanker experiences from that snowflake is comparable to the sensitivity of our instrument,” he told BBC News.

Hot damn. But there’s a catch: To measure gravity with such precision, GOCE must fly at an orbit much closer to the Earth than other satellites — just under 270 km. When you’re flying in orbit that low down, the thermosphere apparently still has enough residual bits of atmosphere to cause teensy bits of turbulence, which of course would irreperably throw off GOCE’s instrumentation. The solution? To stabilize the craft, the engineers put on three swooping, elegant rocket fins, and installed an ion engine. GOCE will thus not merely circle around the globe; it will cruise around it. Satellites are always inherently rather sci-fi, of course; but with those svelte wings and thruster, GOCE is one of the few satellites that actually looks sci-fictional. Indeed, it looked so oddly familiar that it took me a few seconds to realize what it was reminding me of:

One of the Viper fighter ships from Battlestar Galactica! Minus the nose, of course.

For a comparison picture of a Viper, look below the jump …

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I'm Clive Thompson, the author of Smarter Than You Think: How Technology is Changing Our Minds for the Better (Penguin Press). You can order the book now at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Powells, Indiebound, or through your local bookstore! I'm also a contributing writer for the New York Times Magazine and a columnist for Wired magazine. Email is here or ping me via the antiquated form of AOL IM (pomeranian99).

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