NASA Launches Ice-Monitoring Laser to Space on Delta II's Final Flight

The mission will see this laser-toting ice-measuring instrument explore our planet's icy surfaces in unparalleled detail.
Loukia Papadopoulos

NASA launched its Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) mission at 9:02 a.m. EDT (5:46 a.m. PDT). The laser-toting ice-measuring satellite is now on its way to space where it will soon track the changing heights of Earth's ice structures. 

The event also marks the final launch of a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket. The nearly 30 years old rocket was manufactured by the United Launch Alliance and took its first trip back in 1989.

Laser tracking

The Delta II will now see its final journey start the ICESat-2 mission. This key environmental project will involve using the spacecraft's only instrument, the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS), to tracks Earth’s icy surfaces such as glaciers, sea ice, lakes and more.

Earth’s cryosphere will now be explored as never before through ICESat-2's combination of lasers with a very precise detection instrument. "By timing how long it takes laser beams to travel from the satellite to Earth and back, scientists can calculate the height of glaciers, sea ice, forests, lakes and more – including the changing ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica," explained NASA's blog.

Old tool new approach


Unlike its predecessor, the original ICESat, ICESat-2 is essentially employing what NASA describes as "a micro-pulse, multi-beam approach." Using a sensor equipped with a high pulse-repetition rate of about 10 kHz, the satellite will provide measurements every 70 cm along its tracking journey.

This will result in improved elevation estimates of sloped areas and rough land surfaces. Most of all, the project will provide details on height differences between polar oceans and sea ice contributing to analyzing the current impact of global warming escalation.

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