The gravitational pull of the earth has been mapped in this new
 geoid image from the GOCE satellite - with the yellows and red
 indicating a strong pull, while the blues show less gravity

At first glance it looks like a potato-shaped asteroid flying through space.
But this multi-coloured image is actually the Earth - and shows how gravity varies on different parts of the globe.
The images were unveiled today by the team behind the GOCE satellite at a conference in Munich and are the most accurate ever released.

The 'geoid' map, as it is known, is used to illustrate how oceans would look in the absence of currents or tides.
The bright yellow colours show gravity at its strongest, while it is at its weakest in the blue areas.
There appears to be no obvious differences between land and sea as gravity over North America appears to be lower than that of the African continent.
The maps are used for measuring the circulation of oceans, sea-level changes and ice-dynamics - all areas that are affected by climate change.

Professor Reiner Rummel, former Head of the Institute for Astronomical and Physical Geodesy at the Technische Universität München, said: 'We see a continuous stream of excellent GOCE data coming in. With each new two-month cycle, our GOCE gravity field model is getting better and better.
'Now the time has come to use GOCE data for science and applications. I am particularly excited about the first oceanographic results.

Pioneer: The Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean
Circulation Explorer flies in a low orbit and can sense
changes in gravity as small as one part in 10trillion

'They show that GOCE will give us dynamic topography and circulation patterns of the oceans with unprecedented quality and resolution. I am confident that these results will help improve our understanding of the dynamics of world oceans.'
Scientists involved with the satellite also say that the results will aid our understanding of natural disasters and could help plan for events such as those in Japan.
They say that while tectonic plate motion cannot be observed directly from space, signatures in gravity data could lead them understand the processes involved in natural disasters, and ultimately predict them.
The Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Explorer (GOCE) was launched in March 20009.
It flies in a pole to pole orbit at an altitude of just 254km - the lowest of any research satellite in space today.
It carries a gradiometer instrument that can sense changes in gravity as small as 1 part in 10trillion, which allows it to map the difference in gravitational pull from mountain ranges to ocean floors.
The mission currently has funding until the end of next year, when it must seek financial support from members of the European Space Agency to continue.


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