Development, Operation and Analysis of Gravity Field Satellite Missions

Head: Prof. Dr. Frank Flechtner

The shape of our planet deviates substantially from an ideal sphere in many ways. First of all, the Earth is roughly an ellipsoid because of its rotation, bulged at the equator and flattened at the poles. Additionally, high mountains on the continents and deep valleys in the oceans crumple its surface. More interesting from a geoscientific point of view, however, are the spatial and temporal variations of the Earth's gravitational field that produce additional deviations from the ideal sphere. These deviations are caused by large scale mass variations due to mantle convection currents resulting in motions of the whole Earth body (e.g. variation of Earth’s rotation) or parts of it (e.g. deformation of the lithosphere visible in the Mid Atlantic ridge, at subduction zones, in plate kinematics, volcanism, or Earth quakes). Additionally, luni-solar and planetary gravitation, atmospheric pressure and winds, ocean circulation and tides, ocean loading, variations in the continental water cycle or melting of ice in Polar regions and glacier systems cause spatial and temporal variations in the gravity field. 

To observe these mass distribution and mass variation in System Earth on a global scale, with homogeneous accuracy and over long time periods dedicated gravity satellite missions are required.

Section 1.2 develops and operates these missions in strong collaboration with German Industry, NASA, and the German Satellite Operations Center (GSOC) of the German Space Agency (DLR). Analysis of the mission science data is performed using our Earth Parameter and Orbit System (EPOS) software using up to date international standards.

GFZ-1, the first satellite of the GFZ, designed as a small, passive satellite and equipped with 60 retro-reflectors to be illuminated from the ground by the global network of satellite laser ranging (SLR) systems has been used end of last century together with various other geodetic satellites to improve our knowledge of the Earth’s gravity field. A completely new generation of Low Earth Orbiting (LEO) satellites, equipped with onboard GPS receivers and highly precise inter-satellite and accelerometry instrumentation, enabled scientists since beginning of this century not only to observe the Earth‘s gravitational field with much higher spatial resolution but also, for the very first time, its temporal variability.

The individual satellites CHAMP (CHAllenging Minisatellite Payload, 2000-2010) and GOCE (Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer, 2009-2013), as well as the twin satellites of the GRACE (Gravity Recovery and Climate Mission, since 2002) mission can exactly measure even the smallest accelerations caused by gravity changes. GFZ played and still plays a leading role in the development, operation and analysis of these modern satellite missions. We are part of the joint US/German GRACE Science Data System and provide the Deputy Operations Mission Manager, we were member within ESA’s GOCE High Level Processing Facility and we develop within a Memorandum of Understanding with NASA a GRACE-FO (Follow-on) mission due for launch in August 2017. The analysis of these data includes instrument data pre-processing, precision orbit determination and routine generation of various static and time-variable EIGEN (European Improved Gravity model of the Earth by New techniques) gravity field models which are used for many applications in Earth system science such as monitoring the continental global water cycle, melting of large glacier systems, or analysis of surface and deep ocean currents. These so-called ´static satellite only models (purely derived from satellite data)´are of special interest as they have been derived independent from terrestrial data. These models are further combined (within Topic 2) with terrestrial gravimetry data to ultra-high spatial resolution global models.

The current most important projects of Topic 1 are:

  • Implementation and management of the German contributions of the NASA/GFZ GRACE-FO mission including the Launch Service, Mission Operations, optical components to the Laser Ranging Interferometer, provision of Laser Retro Reflectors for both satellites and the development of the Science Data System.
  • Generation and validation of flight procedures to operate and command the GRACE-FO satellites.
  • Routine generation (in cooperation with Section 1.3) of RL05 GRACE atmospheric and oceanic de-aliasing products (AOD1B) also as operational product of the IERS Global Geophysical Fluid Center.
  • Routine generation of monthly and weekly GRACE RL05 gravity field models
  • Simulation studies for Next Generation Gravity Missions
  • Development and generation of Near Realtime and regional daily gravity models for the Horizon2020 Project EGSIEM (European Gravity Service for Improved Emergency Management) 
  • Operation of a Satellite Receiving Station (SRS) in NyAlesund (Spitzbergen) for reception of data from various Earth observing satellites on polar or near-polar orbits

Closed Projects

  • Antarctic Ice Sheet Mass Balance from Satellite Geodesy and Modeling (ANTARCTIC-IMB)
  • Combined Ocean Tide Analysis by GRACE and Altimetry Data (COTAGA)
  • Surface mass redistribution from joint inversion of GPS site displacements, ocean bottom pressure models and GRACE global gravity models (JIGOG)
  • Geodesy and Time Reference in Space (GETRIS)


Flechtner, F., Neumayer, K.-H., Dahle, C., Dobslaw, H., Fagiolini, E., Raimondo, J.-C., Güntner, A. (2016): What Can be Expected from the GRACE-FO Laser Ranging Interferometer for Earth Science Applications? Surveys in Geophysics, 37, 2, p. 453-470,

Elsaka, B., Raimondo, J.-C., Brieden, P., Reubelt, T., Kusche, J., Flechtner, F., Iran Pour, S., Sneeuw, N., Müller, J. (2014): Comparing seven candidate mission configurations for temporal gravity field retrieval through full-scale numerical simulation. Journal of Geodesy, 88, p. 31-43,

Dahle, C., Flechtner, F., König, R., Michalak, G., Neumayer, K.-H., Gruber, C., König, D. (2014): GFZ RL05: An Improved Time-Series of Monthly GRACE Gravity Field Solutions. In: Flechtner, F., Sneeuw, N., Schuh, W.-D. (Eds.), Observation of the System Earth from Space - CHAMP, GRACE, GOCE and future missions, (GEOTECHNOLOGIEN Science Report; 20; Advanced Technologies in Earth Sciences), Berlin [u.a.] : Springer, p. 29-39,

Groh, A., Ewert, H., Rosenau, R., Fagiolini, E., Gruber, C., Floricioiu, D., Abdel Jaber, W., Linow, S., Flechtner, F., Eineder, M., Dierking, W. (2014): Mass, volume and velocity of the Antarctic Ice Sheet: present-day changes and error effects. Surveys in Geophysics, 35, 6, p. 1481-1505,

Dobslaw, H., Flechtner, F., Bergmann-Wolf, I., Dahle, C., Dill, R., Esselborn, S., Sasgen, I., Thomas, M. (2013): Simulating high-frequency atmosphere-ocean mass variability for de-aliasing of satellite gravity observations: AOD1B RL05. Journal of Geophysical Research, 118, 7, p. 3704-3711,


Prof. Dr. Frank Flechtner

Head of Section 1.2:
Global Geomonitoring and Gravity Field

building A17 room 00.12

tel. +49 331 288-1130

c/o DLR Oberpfaffenhofen
Münchner Str. 20
D-82234 Wessling
building 126 room 113

tel. +49 8153 90832 10

Former Satellite Missions