NASA is gearing up to launch a laser-armed satellite that will spend three years studying earth’s melting ice from above. The Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) mission is currently scheduled to launch on September 15 this year. 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 half a centimetre.
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"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. "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" he said.
ICESat-2 will follow two previous major NASA projects to monitor ice thickness.
"ICESat-2 really is a revolutionary new tool for both land ice and sea ice research," said Tom Neumann, NASA's ICESat-2 deputy project scientist.
Sea ice is particularly complicated, since the laser must measure the difference between ice surface and ocean surface, which can be just a few centimetres apart. "It really is an incredible engineering feat, but it's one that the science critically depends on," he said.
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The spacecraft is planned to launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on Sept. 15. ICESat-2's launch will be the last voyage of United Launch Alliance’s Delta II rocket, which has seen more than 150 launches over its nearly 30-year career.