NASA Launches $1 Billion ICESat-2 Satellite To Track Melting Of Earth’s Ice

Kim ShiflettNASA

NASA’s ICESat-2, or Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite, was finally launched on Sept. 15 aboard a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket. The mission replaces an original satellite that was decommissioned in 2009.

The U.S. space agency said that the new $1 billion satellite is currently its most technologically advanced ice-monitoring satellite, capable of measuring changes in ice thickness, cloud height, and forest growth.

NASA said that ICESat-2 will provide humanity with a stronger, and data-backed idea on how fast the Earth’s ice is melting as it orbits around the planet.

In an interview with WBUR, Helen Fricker, from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego, explained how the smart car-size instrument works.

The instrument sends a laser pulse down to the Earth’s surface and times how long it will take for the laser to bounce back. This in turn will build a picture of the planet’s surface.

Data that will be provided by the satellite will show how fast ice responds to changes in the ocean and the atmosphere. Over time, researchers can develop a time series for each location on the ice sheet and determine what causes the changes.

“Thickness is a key piece of the puzzle because thinner sea ice is broken up more easily by storms,” mission’s deputy project scientist Tom Neumann told The Guardian. “It melts faster. So it gives you some insight into why the area is changing the way it is.”

Featured image credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center

Monitoring the melting of the Earth’s ice is crucial because of its dangerous implications. NASA has long warned that the melting of ice in Antarctica and Greenland increases global sea level by more than a millimeter per year, accounting for a third of the overall increase.

Rising sea levels threaten wildlife populations, interferes with crop and food production, and hurts the economy as beachfront areas are washed away by rising waters, compromising recreational industries and livelihood. Research also suggests that sea levels rising would expose 13 million Americans to flooding by the year 2100, submerge thousands of historical sites, and even lead to the disappearance of low-lying Pacific islands.

Fricker, who also helped NASA develop the scientific mission of ICESat-2, said that the ultimate goal is to know how much ice will be lost and how quickly this will happen.

Information on the melting ice can sharpen environmental-prediction models and help scientists better forecast increase in sea levels and climate shifts.

“We can parameterize these processes better and put them into models so that our models will be more accurate and predict future sea level scenarios, so that we can then send that information to planners for preparing for the future,” she said.

Fricker said that the first data from the ice-monitoring spacecraft are expected to come back by mid-October.