NASA Launches a New Laser-Equipped Satellite to Track Earth's Melting Ice

Friday, 24 August 2018 - 1:13PM
Technology
NASA
Space
Friday, 24 August 2018 - 1:13PM
NASA Launches a New Laser-Equipped Satellite to Track Earth's Melting Ice
< >
Image Credit: Pixabay Composite
Between drafting plans to protect Earth from giant asteroids, laying the groundwork for the Deep Space Gateway, and testing a new spacecraft for human space explorationNASA has a lot on its plate. One project you might not expect to fall under the space agency's mission, however, is ice. Since 2003, however, NASA's been measuring the growth and loss of ice across the Earth from space to help get estimates on how hard climate change is impacting the planet. The original mission started with ICESat-1 (which is an acronym for "Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite 1"), and now NASA is prepping to launch ICESat-2 to continue the work.



ICESat-2 is equipped with an incredibly powerful and precise instrument called ATLAS (which stands for "Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System"), which constantly fires six green-colored laser beams at ice-covered regions as it orbits the Earth. Apart from tracking the expansion and contraction of ice in two dimensions, ATLAS can sense the thickness of the ice, even when floating over oceans. According to NASA scientist Tom Wagner: "The areas that we're talking about are vast-think the size of the continental U.S. or larger-and the changes that are occurring over them can be very small. They benefit from an instrument that can make repeat measurements in a very precise way over a large area, and that's why satellites are an ideal way to study them."

ICESat-2 is so accurate that it can measure changes in ice thickness that are only fractions of an inch. In addition, its orbit is so carefully calculated that it will loop back to follow its initial path exactly after 91 days and 1,387 individual orbits. Its mission is scheduled to last three years, but the satellite will have enough fuel for ten, allowing scientists to get an accurate picture of how Earth's ice is changing.

"ICESat-2 really is a revolutionary new tool for both land ice and sea ice research," says NASA's Tom Neumann. "It really is an incredible engineering feat, but it's one that the science critically depends on."

Science
Science News
Technology
NASA
Space
No