NASA & # 39; s new spacecraft will fire high voltage lasers on ice

statueAmerican Air Force / Vanessa Valentine

The poles of the earth change and as the planet gets warmer, the ice will continue to melt. Following how this ice will change in the coming years will be crucial for understanding the consequences for the rest of the world. Next month, NASA will launch a new spacecraft to do exactly that, equipped with one of the most advanced lasers in the world.

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NASA has sent satellites into the orbit to study the poles for a long time. The agency has a number of imaging satellites capable of taking photos of how the ice is changing over time and the new GRACE satellites, which were launched just last month, record small gravity fluctuations to accommodate the changing ice mass underneath. recognize the surface.

NASA & # 39; s new Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) operate in a different way by sending a powerful laser into space. Onboard the satellite is the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS), which is designed to measure the exact height of Arctic ice.

ATLAS sends a laser beam straight out of the track onto the polar ice. When that laser hits the ice, part of the light is reflected back into space, where it is detected by the ICESat-2 satellite. The satellite measures the time it takes to travel to the planet and come back to a billionth of a second.

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The ATLAS laser can shoot about 10,000 times per second when flying overhead, which means it can make more than 2000 measurements per mile of covered terrain. That is more than 50 times more measurements than the previous satellite NASA had in this position, ICESat-1. With these many measurements, ICESat-2 scientists can give a crystal-clear picture of what the polar ice caps look like when they go through one of the most drastic changes in their history.

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