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A satellite will demonstrate an experiment of gravitational reference technologies that will give a better picture of plate movements

GRATTIS will demonstrate the performance of advanced sensors that measure nanometer-scale gravitational changes from space to track movements on Earth's surface and interior

The GRATTIS satellite orbits the Earth with two gravity measuring instruments. (credit Simon Barke/UF)
The GRATTIS satellite orbits the Earth with two gravity measuring instruments. (credit Simon Barke/UF)

NASA has chosen a team of aeronautical engineers from the University of Florida to carry out a groundbreaking $12 million mission that aims to improve the way we monitor changes in Earth's structures, such as tectonic plates and oceans. The mission, called "GRATTIS" (acronym for: Technology Test Advanced of Gravitational Attribution in Space), was the only proposal selected in a national competition.

GRATTIS will demonstrate the performance of advanced sensors that measure nanometer-scale gravitational changes from space to track movements on Earth's surface and interior.

"The University of Florida is committed to being a leader in space exploration, and this is a perfect example of how our researchers are advancing humanity's understanding of the world and the greater universe," said University of Florida President Ben Sass. "We are excited to support our research team as they push the boundaries of human curiosity and innovation."

In the coming years, the team led by principal investigator John Conklin, a professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aeronautical Engineering, will focus on perfecting the sensor technology and integrating it into the spacecraft. The launch is expected to occur around 2027 aboard SpaceX's Falcon 9 rocket, with subsequent operations managed by the University of Florida's Mission Activation Team.

"Our technology will provide vital insights into the movement of water and ice across the planet," Conklin said. "These data are essential for monitoring forms, assessing groundwater reserves and understanding the impact of melting glaciers on sea level."

The project marks a significant milestone in the University of Florida's space program, which has also led developments in areas such as space propulsion and gravitational wave instrumentation. This closely aligns with the vision of the University of Florida's new Space Institute, which works to advance space science by utilizing the university's vast array of space-related research from all academic disciplines.

"The GRATTIS mission builds on previous successes and underscores the university's role as a leader in space science and technology," said Forrest Masters, interim dean of the Herbert Wertheim College of Engineering.

Conklin said the GRATTIS mission involves a collaborative effort with several key partners.

"This mission demonstrates the dedication and collaboration of researchers at the University of Florida, Texas A&M University, Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, and industry partners such as CrossTrac Engineering, BAE Systems, Fibertek Inc. and Apex Space", he said.

GRATTIS will pave the way for future NASA missions in the Earth sciences, with implications that extend into the next decades.

"We are excited to see our work move from the lab to space and contribute to advancing our understanding of Earth's dynamic processes," Conklin said.

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