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Science

German satellite meets fiery end

After 10 years in orbit and 58277 trips around the earth, the georesearch satellite CHAMP collected material that made for one of the most successful Earth observation missions yet, say researchers.

An image of the CHAMP satellite floating in space

15 years of work up in smoke - but not for nothing

It was a quick end to a long life for CHAMP, the Challenging Mini Satellite Payload. After 3718 days of providing information to researchers on the ground, the satellite burnt up on September 19, 2010 over the sea of Okhotsk, somewhere between eastern Siberia, the Russian peninsular of Kamchatka and Japan.

It was "one of the most successful observation missions of the Earth's system," said Professor Reinhard Huettle, CEO of the Potsdam-based German Research Center for Geosciences, better known by its German acronym, GFZ. This was the center that first designed the CHAMP project in 1995. Since then the satellite has provided geoscientists with groundbreaking new insights.

The 'Potsdam gravity potato'

The information provided by CHAMP allowed researchers, for instance, to better capture the Earth's form – dips and bulges included. This allowed researchers to develop an image of Earth not as a perfect sphere but as a 'floating potato' – the 'Potsdam gravity potato'.

An image of the 'potato Earth' as seen by CHAMP

The 'potato Earth' as seen by CHAMP

This was possible because CHAMP was set on an irregular orbit around the Earth: At times it was more attracted to the Earth, at times less. For the first time, researchers were able to trace the satellite's path continuously and accurately, to within centimeters, and were able to reconstruct the shape of the Earth second by second.

CHAMP also offered researchers new insights into the Earth's magnetic field, allowing them to recognize that field strength decreases continuously, particularly in the southern Atlantic Ocean, which in turn leads to frequent disruptions in satellite operation.

What's more, the satellite allowed for the creation of global maps of important mineral and ore deposits – pointing to iron ore in Kursk, Russia, and diamonds in West Africa – as these deposits could be seen for the first time through analysis of the magnetization of the rock.

A diagram of the Earth's magnetic field

The Earth's magnetic field

Come rain or shine

Measurements taken by the satellite have also been used in weather forecasting and climate research. For the first time in 2006, the British 'Met Office' used the satellite's data to create global weather forecasts. CHAMP data has also been used in centers in Europe, Japan and Canada.

The satellite also proved unexpectedly useful in monitoring space weather, allowing meteorologists to predict storms in the ionosphere, an outer layer of the Earth's atmosphere, more quickly. These storms can interfere with telecommunications, satellite navigation and radio-radar systems.

15 years of work

The CHAMP project began in 1995 when the German Education and Research Ministry developed a satellite mission as a flagship project for the East German space industry, to try to promote existing knowledge of the field within East Germany.

Five years on, when the 522kg (1150lb) CHAMP satellite was launched, it was originally thought it would stay in orbit for five years at most. But the satellite's design allowed it such a stable flight, even at a low flight path, that the mission time could be more than doubled.

Author: Nicole Scherschun (skt)
Editor: Cyrus Farivar

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