NASA & # 39; s Laser-Powered Ice Measurement Satellite launches in September

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There is substantial evidence that the ice caps on Earth are getting smaller, but we often lack the tools to follow the changes in detail. NASA launched a satellite in 2003 to measure surface ice, but that mission ended in 2010. In September, NASA launched a follow-up satellite named Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2). This spacecraft uses lasers to make accurate measurements of ice to monitor how it changes over time.

NASA has been researching ice cover for years, but the areas that need to be monitored are enormous. NASA & # 39; s Tom Wagner says that many of the areas of interest are the size of the continental US. It is not always practical to monitor such large areas with aircraft, but space-based cameras have difficulty measuring the height needed to track the thickness of ice sheets.

ICESat-2 will be launched around the middle of the month with an improved version of the laser system from the original ICESat. When that satellite was switched off, ICESat-2 was still years after completion. NASA threw an emergency call mission called IceBridge (do you understand?) To keep an eye on smaller areas that were particularly important. The news from the original ICESat mission was not good – NASA says sea ice has been diluted by two-thirds since the 1980s.

ICESat-2 can update the measurements of the previous mission and provide more consistent coverage of the world than IceBridge. The satellite will run at a height of about 300 miles (500 kilometers) and shine a laser from an instrument called the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS). The 532nm light beam always remains active and is fired 10,000 times per second.

The single beam is divided by the satellite into six to project them onto the surface in a grid pattern. Most of those photos are absorbed by the atmosphere or bounce in other directions, but some bounce back to the satellite. Thanks to the round-trip time, ICESat-2 can calculate the height of the surface. From its polar orbit, the satellite scans the entire surface every 91 days, which is very deliberate. With that job, ICESat-2 can measure the same locations in all four seasons.

The satellite itself is small – hardly the size of a small car. It does not need a heavy-duty rocket to gain space, so NASA plans to bring it on board a ULA Delta II on 15 September. That date can change if the startup conditions are not favorable.

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