Only a few are granted the privilege of being honored extraterrestrially in recognition of their scientific achievements. Hans Sünkel, Rector of the Graz University of Technology and Professor of Geophysics and Geodesy, received this honor in 2006 when a planet 500 million kilometers from Earth was named after him.
As early as the late 1990s, Sünkel introduced a GPS positioning system that was characterized by very high accuracy. Whereas inaccuracies of 300 meters had been common until then, Sünkel reduced them to several centimeters. He also played a major role in GOCE (Gravity Field and Steady-State Ocean Circulation Mission), one of the most technologically sophisticated missions ever conducted by the European Space Agency (ESA). Satellites will be used to create a new, very accurate model of the Earth’s gravitational field. The satellite, which weighs about 800 kilograms and is four meters long, operates at an altitude of about 250 kilometers, an extremely low orbit never flown before. The remaining minimal air resistance and other disturbing influences, such as the radiation pressure of the sun, are compensated for by the sophisticated system of an extremely sensitive ion beam propulsion system, so that the satellite ultimately flies exactly along the path of a free fall around the earth. The orbit is determined with an accuracy of about one centimeter in all three spatial directions. The measurement of the Earth’s gravitational field carried out by GOCE will, among other things, provide information about the physical relationships inside the Earth. At the same time, new insights into the circulation of the world’s oceans will be gained.
Sünkel, who studied surveying at the then Graz University of Technology from 1968 to 1973 and graduated with honors, then went to Ohio State University, then returned to Graz as an assistant, where he habilitated in 1981. In 1983, he was appointed a full university professor. Since 1990, Sünkel has headed the Department of Satellite Geodesy of the Institute of Space Research of the Austrian Academy of Sciences, of which he became director in 2001. He succeeded Willibald Riedler (Wilhelm Exner Medal 1992). Since 2003 Sünkel has been Rector of Graz University of Technology, having previously been Vice Rector for Research and Deputy Rector since 2000.