Spectral analysis of data noise is performed in the context of gravity field recovery from inter-satellite ranging measurements acquired by the satellite gravimetry mission GRACE. The motivation of the study is two-fold: (i) to promote a further improvement of GRACE data processing techniques and (ii) to assist designing GRACE follow-on missions. The analyzed noise realizations are produced as the difference between the actual GRACE inter-satellite range measurements and the predictions based on state-of-the-art force models. The exploited functional model is based on the so-called “range combinations,” which can be understood as a finite-difference analog of inter-satellite accelerations projected onto the line-of-sight connecting the satellites. It is shown that low-frequency noise is caused by limited accuracy of the computed GRACE orbits. In the first instance, it leads to an inaccurate estimation of the radial component of the inter-satellite velocities. A large impact of this component stems from the fact that it is directly related to centrifugal accelerations, which have to be taken into account when the measured range-accelerations are linked with inter-satellite accelerations. Another effect of orbit inaccuracies is a miscalculation of forces acting on the satellites (particularly, the one described by the zero-degree term of the Earth’s gravitational field). The major contributors to the noise budget at high frequencies (above 9 mHz) are (i) ranging sensor errors and (ii) limited knowledge of the Earth’s static gravity field at high degrees. Importantly, we show that updating the model of the static field on the basis of the available data must be performed with a caution as the result may not be physical due to a non-unique recovery of high-degree coefficients. The source of noise in the range of intermediate frequencies (1–9 mHz), which is particularly critical for an accurate gravity field recovery, is not fully understood yet. We show, however, that it cannot be explained by inaccuracies in background models of time-varying gravity field. It is stressed that most of the obtained results can be treated as sufficiently general (i.e., applicable in the context of a statistically optimal estimation based on any functional model).
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