NASA launches a laser in space to measure the ice caps

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

The satellite measures the average annual height change of ice on ice in Greenland and Antarctica using an Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS). The device measures the height of the ice by determining how long it takes for 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 light rays. It is expected that the new project will 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 on September 15 at the Air Base Vandenberg in California.

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

ICESat-2 will circle the earth from pool to pool and measure the changing ice height four times a year, providing seasonal and annual monitoring of ice height changes. The ICESat-2 will also try to follow changes in the ice surface every month. By following the ice caps seasonal influences, the ICESat-2 will circle around the planet every 91 days. The satellite is also equipped with star-trackers, which use cameras and a star chart to see what ATLAS points to and combine with a GPS system that helps to measure the position of the cap.

"Because ICESat-2 will provide measurements with unprecedented precision and global coverage, it will not only provide new insights into the polar regions, but also unexpected findings around the world," said ICESat-2 project scientist Thorsten Markus in the release. "The ability and opportunity for real exploration is enormous."

Earth A photo of the earth made by Expedition 46 flight engineer Tim Peake. The ICESat-2 will launch lasers on earth for more accurate measurements of our ice caps. REUTERS / NASA / Tim Peake

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