First Direct Measurement of Earth's Rotation
Capturing these movements is crucial to create a reliable coordinate system that can feed navigation systems or project trajectory paths in space travel.
"Locating a point to the exact centimeter for global positioning is an extremely dynamic process – after all, at our latitude, we are moving at around 350 meters to the east per second," explains Prof. Karl Ulrich Schreiber who directed the project in TUM's Research Section Satellite Geodesy.
The orientation of the Earth's axis relative to space and its rotational velocity are currently established in a complicated process that involves 30 radio telescopes around the globe. Every Monday and Thursday, eight to twelve of these telescopes alternately measure the direction between Earth and specific quasars. Scientists assume that these galaxy nuclei never change their position and can therefore be used as reference points. The geodetic observatory Wettzell, which is run by TUM and Germany's Federal Agency for Cartography (BKG), is also part of this process.
In the mid-1990s, scientists of TUM and BKG joined forces with researchers at New Zealand's University of Canterbury to develop a simpler method that would be capable of continuously tracking the Chandler wobble and annual wobble. "We also wanted to develop an alternative that would enable us to eliminate any systematic errors," continues Schreiber. "After all, there was always a possibility that the reference points in space were not actually stationary." The scientists had the idea of building a ring laser similar to ones used in aircraft guidance systems – only millions of times more exact. "At the time, we were almost laughed off. Hardly anyone thought that our project was feasible," says Schreiber.
The Earth's rotation affects light in different ways, depending on the laser's location. "If we were at one of the poles, the Earth and the laser's rotational axes would be in complete synch and their rotational velocity would map 1:1," details Schreiber. "At the equator, however, the light beam wouldn't even notice that the Earth is turning." The scientists therefore have to factor in the position of the Wettzell laser at the 49th degree of latitude. Any change in the Earth's rotational axis is reflected in the indicators for rotational velocity. The light's behavior therefore reveals shifts in the Earth's axis.
"The principle is simple," adds Schreiber. "The biggest challenge was ensuring that the laser remains stable enough for us to measure the weak geophysical signal without interference – especially over a period of several months."
In other words, the scientists had to eliminate any changes in frequency that do not come from the Earth's rotation. These include environmental factors such as atmospheric pressure and temperature. They relied predominantly on a ceramic glass plate and a pressurized cabin to achieve this. The researchers mounted the ring laser on a nine-ton Zerodur base plate, also using Zerodur for the supporting beams. They chose Zerodur as it is extremely resistant to changes in temperature. The installation is housed in a pressurized cabin, which registers changes in atmospheric pressure and temperature (12 degrees) and automatically compensates for these. The scientists sunk the lab five meters below ground level to keep these kinds of ambient influences to a minimum. It is insulated from above with layers of Styrodur and clay, and topped by a four-meter high mound of Earth. Scientists have to pass through a twenty-meter tunnel with five cold storage doors and a lock to get to the laser.
"In simple terms," concludes Schreiber, "in future, we want to be able to just pop down into the basement and find out how fast the Earth is accurately turning right now."
This press release is available in German.
Studying the physical properties and behavior of Earth in the context of our solar system can help astrobiologists determine the conditions that lead our planet to become habitable. Such information can help us understand life future on our planet, and the potential for habitable worlds around distant stars.