NASA Satellite Laser Will Map Polar Ice Melt

Artist concept of NASA’s ICESat2, a satellite that will measure the height of a changing Earth – one laser pulse at a time, 10,000 laser pulses a second. (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center)

(CN) – NASA will soon have more detailed information than ever before about the melting of Earth’s polar ice caps and how they affect sea level rise.

NASA scientists on Wednesday described the data they expect from a new satellite equipped with a laser that will track changes in the thickness of ice sheets, glaciers and sea ice across Antarctica and Greenland. NASA plans to launch the satellite Sept. 15.

Scientists are already tracking melting sea ice by measuring the area of the sea covered in ice, which has declined 40 percent in the Arctic since 1980. The ATLAS laser aboard ICESat-2 will add the most precise data ever on ice thickness and volume.

The satellite will orbit the earth along 1,387 different paths every 91 days, repeating each path four times per year. It will fire 10,000 times each second, sending hundreds of trillions of photons to the ground in six beams of green light. Scientists will measure the time it takes each photon to travel from the satellite to Earth and back to determine the height of the elevation on earth below. That means scientists will have a precise measurement the height of whatever is covering the ground – whether it’s ice sheets, ocean or rain forest.

ICESat-2’s mission will focus on measuring the changing ice caps to better predict changes in weather patterns that cause floods and droughts. But the data it collects will have other uses as well. Accurate measurements of the heights of the world’s forests will help researchers determine how much of the earth’s carbon is currently locked up in them.

“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 NASA project scientist Thorsten Markus. “The capacity and opportunity for true exploration is immense.”


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