UK ion engines power gravity probe

A sleek spacecraft dubbed the Formula 1 of satellites will launch on Monday, powered by revolutionary rocket engines built in the UK. Star Trek-style ion engines developed in Hampshire will provide cruise control for Europe’s unmanned GOCE as it skims the wispy edge of the atmosphere.

GOCE in orbitThe craft is being sent to measure tiny fluctuations in the pull of gravity at different points due to the Earth’s spin plus features such as mountains and ocean trenches.

Experts say that mapping this gravity field is crucial for measuring ocean currents and sea levels and to help us tackle climate change.

GOCE – it stands for Gravity field and steady-state Ocean Circulation Explorer – is due to blast off atop a Russian rocket on 16 March. It will fly much lower than most spacecraft, at a height of just 125 to 185 miles and the British engines will prevent it from plunging into the atmosphere and crashing.

To allow its sensitive measurements, there are no moving parts in the arrow-like ship, which is 16ft long and just over 3ft wide. The solar-powered ion engines work by firing a beam of electrically charged particles of xenon gas to provide thrust.

They were developed and built by scientists at defence firm Qinetiq’s research facilities at Farnborough, Hants. Davis Bishop, of Qinetiq, said: “After 20 years in development, this will be the first time that our ion engines will be flown in space.

“In future ion engines will make deep space mission possible and will allow comms satellites to stay in orbit far longer, reducing costs.”

Picture: An artist’s impression of GOCE in orbit (ESA).

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Paul Sutherland

Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.
Paul Sutherland

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Paul Sutherland

I have been a professional journalist for nearly 40 years. I write regularly for science magazines including BBC Sky at Night magazine, BBC Focus, Astronomy Now and Popular Astronomy. I have also authored three books on astronomy and contributed to others.

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