A gravimeter or gravitometer, is an instrument used in gravimetry for measuring the local gravitational field of the Earth. A gravimeter is a type of accelerometer, specialized for measuring the constant downward acceleration of gravity. Though the essential principle of design is the same as in other accelerometers, gravimeters are typically designed to be much more sensitive in order to measure very tiny fractional changes within the Earth's gravity of 1 g, caused by nearby geologic structures or the shape of the Earth. This sensitivity means that gravimeters are susceptible to extraneous vibrations including noise that tend to cause oscillatory accelerations. In practice this is counteracted by integral vibration isolation and signal processing. The constraints on temporal resolution are usually less for gravimeters, so that resolution can be increased by processing the output with a longer "time constant". Gravimeters display their measurements in units of gals, instead of ordinary units of acceleration.
Gravimeters are used for petroleum and mineral prospecting, seismology, geodesy and other geophysical research.
There are two types of gravimeters: relative and absolute. Absolute gravimeters measure the local gravity in absolute units, gals. Relative gravimeters compare the value of gravity at one point with another. They must be calibrated at a location where the gravity is known accurately, and then transported to the location where the gravity is to be measured. They measure the ratio of the gravity at the two points.
Most common relative gravimeters are spring-based. They are used in gravity surveys over large areas for establishing the figure of the geoid over those areas. A spring-based relative gravimeter is basically a weight on a spring, and by measuring the amount by which the weight stretches the spring, local gravity can be measured. However, the strength of the spring must be calibrated by placing the instrument in a location with a known gravitational acceleration. A high-grade, calibrated spring gravimeter such as the portable LaCoste-Romberg gravimeter can measure the Earth's gravitational field to within 1 µGal, or (0.1 nm/s²).
The most accurate relative gravimeters are superconducting gravimeters, which use the extremely stable magnetic field created by a superconducting magnet as a spring. These achieve sensitivities of one nanogal, one thousandth of one billionth (10-12) of the Earth surface gravity.
Absolute gravimeters, which nowadays are made compact so they too can be used in the field, work by directly measuring the acceleration of a mass during free fall in a vacuum. The mass includes a retroreflector and terminates one arm of a Michelson interferometer. By counting and timing the interference fringes, the velocity of the mass can be measured. A more recent development is a "rise and fall" version that tosses the mass upward and measures both upward and downward motion. This allows cancellation of some measurement errors. Absolute gravimeters are used to calibrate relative gravimeters, and for establishing the vertical control network.
- J. M. Brown, T. M. Niebauer, B. Richter, F. J. Klopping, J. G. Valentine, and W. K. Buxton (1999-08-10). "Miniaturized Gravimeter May Greatly Improve Measurements". Eos, Transactions, American Geophysical Union, electronic supplement. http://www.agu.org/eos_elec/99144e.html.