Gravity map of the Southern Ocean around the Antarctic continentAuthor-Hannes Grobe, AWI
Gravimetry is the measurement of the strength of a gravitational field. Gravimetry may be used when either the magnitude of gravitational field or the properties of matter responsible for its creation are of interest. The term gravimetry or gravimetric is also used in chemistry to define a class of analytical procedures, called gravimetric analysis relying upon weighing a sample of material.
This gravity field was computed from sea-surface height measurements collected by the US Navy GEOSAT altimeter between March, 1985, and January, 1990. The high density GEOSAT Geodetic Mission data that lie south of 30 deg. S were declassified by the Navy in May of 1992 and contribute most of the fine-scale gravity information.
The Antarctic continent itself is shaded in blue depending on the thickness of the ice sheet (blue shades in steps of 1000 m); light blue is shelf ice; gray lines are the major ice devides; pink spots are parts of the continent which are not covered by ice; gray areas have no data.
Units of measurementGravity is usually measured in units of acceleration. In the SI system of units, the standard unit of acceleration is 1 metre per second squared (abbreviated as m/s2). Other units include the gal (sometimes known as a galileo, in either case with symbol Gal), which equals 1 centimetre per second squared, and the g (gn), equal to 9.80665 m/s2. The value of the gn approximately equals the acceleration due to gravity at the Earth's surface (although the actual acceleration g varies fractionally from place to place).
How gravity is measuredAn instrument used to measure gravity is known as a gravimeter, or gravitometer. Since general relativity regards the effects of gravity as indistinguishable from the effects of acceleration, gravimeters may be regarded as special purpose accelerometers. Many weighing scales may be regarded as simple gravimeters. In one common form, a spring is used to counteract the force of gravity pulling on an object. The change in length of the spring may be calibrated to the force required to balance the gravitational pull. The resulting measurement may be made in units of force (such as the newton), but is more commonly made in units of gals.
More sophisticated gravimeters are used when precise measurements are needed. When measuring the Earth's gravitational field, measurements are made to the precision of microgals to find density variations in the rocks making up the Earth. Several types of gravimeters exist for making these measurements, including some that are essentially refined versions of the spring scale described above. These measurements are used to define gravity anomalies.
Besides precision, also stability is an important property of a gravimeter, as it allows the monitoring of gravity changes. These changes can be the result of mass displacements inside the Earth, or of vertical movements of the Earth's crust on which measurements are being made: remember that gravity decreases 0.3 mGal for every metre of height. The study of gravity changes belongs to geodynamics.
The majority of modern gravimeters use specially-designed quartz zero-length springs to support the test mass. Zero length springs do not follow Hooke's Law, instead they have a force proportional to their length. The special property of these springs is that the natural resonant period of oscillation of the spring-mass system can be made very long - approaching a thousand seconds. This detunes the test mass from most local vibration and mechanical noise, increasing the sensitivity and utility of the gravimeter. The springs are quartz so that magnetic and electric fields do not affect measurements. The test mass is sealed in an air-tight container so that tiny changes of barometric pressure from blowing wind and other weather do not change the buoyancy of the test mass in air.
Spring gravimeters are, in practice, relative instruments which measure the difference in gravity between different locations. A relative instrument also requires calibration by comparing instrument readings taken at locations with known complete or absolute values of gravity. Absolute gravimeters provide such measurements by determining the gravitational acceleration of a test mass in vacuum. A test mass is allowed to fall freely inside a vacuum chamber and its position is measured with a laser interferometer and timed with an atomic clock. The laser wavelength is known to ±0.025 ppb and the clock is stable to ±0.03 ppb as well. Great care must be taken to minimize the effects of perturbing forces such as residual air resistance (even in vacuum) and magnetic forces. Such instruments are capable of an accuracy of a few parts per billion or 0.002 mGal and reference their measurement to atomic standards of length and time. Their primary use is for calibrating relative instruments, monitoring crustal deformation, and in geophysical studies requiring high accuracy and stability. However, absolute instruments are somewhat larger and significantly more expensive than relative spring gravimeters, and are thus relatively rare.
Gravimeters have been designed to mount in vehicles, including aircraft, ships and submarines. These special gravimeters isolate acceleration from the movement of the vehicle, and subtract it from measurements. The acceleration of the vehicles is often hundreds or thousands of times stronger than the changes being measured. A gravimeter (the Lunar Surface Gravimeter) was also deployed on the surface of the moon during the Apollo 17 mission, but did not work due to a design error. A second device (the Traverse Gravimeter Experiment) functioned as anticipated.
MicrogravimetryMicrogravimetry is a rising and important branch developed on the foundation of classical gravimetry.
Microgravity investigations are carried out in order to solve various problems of engineering geology, mainly location of voids and their monitoring. Very detailed measurements of high accuracy can indicate voids of any origin, provided the size and depth are large enough to produce gravity effect stronger than is the level of confidence of relevant gravity signal.
HistoryThe modern gravimeter was developed by Lucien LaCoste and Arnold Romberg in 1936.
They also invented most subsequent refinements, including the ship-mounted gravimeter, in 1965, temperature-resistant instruments for deep boreholes, and lightweight hand-carried instruments. Most of their designs remain in use (2005) with refinements in data collection and data processing.