NASA Will Launch a Laser into Space to Measure the Ice Caps

NASA plans to launch a laser to measure Earth's changing ice caps more accurately than ever before. The Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) will launch next month.

The satellite will measure the average annual elevation change of land ice covering ice in Greenland and Antarctica using an Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS). The device measures the height of ice by timing how long it takes individual light photons to travel from the spacecraft to Earth and back.

The laser will fire 10,000 times and capture 60,000 measurements per second, sending a large volume of photons to the ground in six beams of green light. The new project is expected to measure ice with an accuracy better than or equal to less than half a centimeter on an annual basis. The launch is expected to take place at the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on September 15.

"ATLAS required us to develop new technologies to get the measurements needed by scientists to advance the research," said Doug McLennan, an ICESat-2 project manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, in a Tuesday release. "That meant we had to engineer a satellite instrument that not only will collect incredibly precise data, but also will collect more than 250 times as many height measurements as its predecessor." The original ICESat, launched in 2003, takes fewer measurements with less precision.

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ICESat-2 will orbit Earth from pole to pole and measure the changing ice heights four times a year, providing seasonal and annual monitoring of ice elevation changes. The ICESat-2 also will attempt to track changes in ice surface elevation every month. Monitoring the ice caps seasonally means the ICESat-2 will orbit the planet 1,387 ways every 91 days. The satellite also comes fitted with star trackers, which use cameras and a star map to see where ATLAS will be pointing and combine with a GPS system that helps isolate the location the cap is measuring.

"Because ICESat-2 will provide measurements of unprecedented precision with global coverage, it will yield not only new insight into the polar regions but also unanticipated findings across the globe," said ICESat-2 project scientist Thorsten Markus in the release. "The capacity and opportunity for true exploration is immense."

A photo of Earth taken by Expedition 46 flight engineer Tim Peake. The ICESat-2 will launch lasers at Earth for more precise measurements of our ice caps. REUTERS/NASA/Tim Peake

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NASA Will Launch a Laser into Space to Measure the Ice Caps | U.S.