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Europe

European Space Agency Delays Satellite Launch

The European Space Agency (ESA) postponed its most sophisticated Earth observation satellites to date just seconds before lift off on Monday, March 16.

A computer animation of GOCE in space

GOCE will deliver information important for climate change research

The GOCE (Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer) satellite was designed to map Earth's gravity, and hopefully contribute to climate research. It was due to launch from the Plesetsk Cosmodrome in the northwest of Russia on Monday afternoon.

But a spokesman at the ESA Centre for Earth Observation in Frascati, Italy, near Rome, said the countdown was suspended when the service tower protecting the rocket failed to move clear of the pad and allow the satellite to lift off.

"The launch was delayed until the back-up date, tomorrow. The reasons are being checked. It is due to technical reasons connected to the ground services," a spokesman for the Russian space center said.

The 346-million-euro satellite is to reach orbit strapped to the back of a modified Russian ballistic missile.

The orbiting of the GOCE satellite has been pushed back several times over fears that the launch system was not ready after an earlier ESA satellite, designed to map the world's ice fields, crashed in 2005.

Insights into oceans, gravity

Planet Earth

ESA hopes to gain insights into the Earth's oceans and gravity

ESA scientists said GOCE would map the Earth's gravitational field with unprecedented resolution and accuracy.

Scientists believe data obtained by the satellite could also help improve their understanding of ocean circulation and sea-level change, both of which are affected by climate change. The data could also assist in the study of geo-hazards, such as volcanoes and earthquakes.

GOCE bears little resemblance to the plain, functional boxes that are usually launched into space. One of the scientists who worked on the mission, Reiner Rummel of the Technical University of Munich, has called it "the most beautiful satellite that has ever been built."

European technology, design

The satellite has fins and a sleek, arrow-like body, which are needed to keep the craft stable as it flies in the outer limits of the atmosphere at an altitude of just under 270 kilometers. This orbit is much closer to Earth than most other planetary observation missions, and is essential if GOCE is to pick up minute gravitational variations across the planet.

The ESA said GOCE's design reflects European achievements in both engineering and science. Forty-five companies from 13 European countries worked with the space agency on the satellite, the first of ESA's Earth Explorers, a series of spacecraft designed to provide answers to important environmental questions.

"Precisely in times of climate change, a process that is still a long way from being completely understood, researchers need continuous, new Earth observations," Rummel said.

If all goes well on the second launch attempt, GOCE will transmit data back to Earth over a period of eight months.

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