NASA is preparing to launch a cutting-edge, laser-armed satellite that will spend three years studying Earth’s changing ice sheets from above.
Called the Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2), the mission is currently scheduled to launch in mid-September. The satellite will be able to measure the changing thickness of individual patches of ice from season to season, registering increases and decreases as small as a fifth of an inch (half a centimeter).
“The areas that we’re talking about are vast — think the size of the continental U.S. or larger — and the changes that are occurring over them can be very small,” Tom Wagner, a NASA scientist studying the world’s ice, said during a news conference yesterday (Aug. 22). “They benefit from an instrument that can make repeat measurements in a very precise way over a large area, and that’s why satellites are an ideal way to study them.” [How NASA Is Tracking Earth’s Melting Arctic Sea Ice (Video)]
While the mission is optimized for studying ice at the poles, its data should also aid scientists studying forests around the planet.
ICESat-2, which cost a little over $1 billion and is about the size of a Smart car, will follow two previous major NASA projects to monitor ice thickness.
In 2003, the original ICESat began seven years of laser-aided measurements of ice height, bouncing a single laser off the surface of the ice. Because ICESat-2 wasn’t ready to launch when the original mission ended, NASA designed a stopgap airplane-based mission called Operation IceBridge to track particularly crucial areas of ice.