NASA will soon be launching the world’s most advanced laser instrument into space, as the space agency hopes to study Earth’s polar ice caps in greater depth than ever before.
According to a NASA press release published Thursday, the Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite-2, or ICESat-2, will come with one specific instrument, the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS), that represents a “major technological leap” in terms of how the agency could measure changes in ice height. The laser will track these changes by measuring the time it takes for individual light photons to travel back and forth between ICESat-2 and Earth.
All in all, ICESat-2’s primary objective is to accurately measure the average change of ice covering Greenland and Antarctica per year, with its lone instrument, ATLAS, gathering data at about 60,000 measurements per second. The satellite is scheduled to launch on September 15, from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
“The new observational technologies of ICESat-2 – a top recommendation of the scientific community in NASA’s first Earth science decadal survey – will advance our knowledge of how the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica contribute to sea level rise,” read a statement from Michael Freilich, director of the NASA Science Mission Directorate’s Earth Science Division.
Further explaining why ATLAS could be the world’s most advanced laser, NASA wrote that the laser will fire at a rate of about 10,000 times per second, which would allow it to send “hundreds of trillions of photons” to the ground in Antarctica and Greenland. The fine accuracy of the measurements, which is said to be timed to the billionth of a second, will allow ICESat-2 to provide elevation estimates that are far more detailed than those of the earlier ICESat satellite.
#ICESat2 will measure both land and sea ice. Land ice, like glaciers and ice sheets, is created by snowfall compressing and freezing solid. Sea ice is made up of ocean water that freezes. Some sea ice lasts for years and some melts seasonally. ❄️???????? pic.twitter.com/ylqSba86Br— NASA Earth (@NASAEarth) August 22, 2018
“ATLAS required us to develop new technologies to get the measurements needed by scientists to advance the research,” explained Doug McLennan, ICESat-2 project manager and NASA Goddard Space Flight Center scientist.
“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.”
In a news conference on Wednesday, NASA scientist Tom Wagner noted that ICESat-2’s scope could cover an area of polar ice “the size of the continental U.S. or larger,” and keep track of changes that might be very small and otherwise escape undetected, according to Space.
According to BGR, ICESat-2 is much more than a satellite carrying what is supposed to be the most advanced laser ever developed. The satellite’s measurements are expected to provide a finer view of how man-made climate change and other factors have affected the world’s polar ice caps. The publication warned that these mostly human-driven factors haven’t just caused global temperatures to rise at an unprecedented rate, but also resulted in more intense storms, droughts, and other weather events, and an increase in global sea levels due to faster rates of ice melt.