Satellite Maps Earth's Lumpy, Misshapen Gravity Field

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Space data shows gravity warping Earth into a lumpy, technicolored potato -- but what does it actually mean?

After nearly two years in space, a European satellite has collected the raw data needed to map variations in Earth's gravity field. The data will help scientists better understand the impact of climate change on sea levels, ice sheets, and ocean circulation systems.

More important, the GOCE satellite also helped them create this alternate version of what the Earth would look like if gravity exerted an even pull across the entire planet.

As it stands, Earth's slightly flattened shape and the irregular distribution of heavy rock leads to inconsistent gravitational forces across different regions.

Scientists at ESA have used the new data to generate this planetary "geoid," a model of what they say is an "ideal planetary ocean." ESA launched the 16-foot long, 2,315-pound satellite in 2009 as part of its "Earth Explorer" program.

From its relatively low orbital position 260km above the planet, GOCE can detect minute changes in Earth's gravity field, something in the order of one part in ten million million.

The geoid will allow for a far more accurate measure of ocean circulation, massive ice sheet in Greenland and Antarctica and changes in sea level, all of which are influenced by global warming.