NASA’s most advanced space laser satellite blasted off Saturday on a mission to track ice loss around the world and improve forecasts of sea level rise as the climate warms.

Cloaked in pre-dawn darkness, the $1 billion, half-ton ICESat-2 launched aboard a Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force base in California.

The new satellite, called ICESat-2, will give researchers the sharpest look ever at melting glaciers, ice sheets and sea ice, which make up much of the Earth’s frozen regions that are collectively known as the cryosphere. All that melting ice contributes to sea level rise, and ICESat (an imperfect acronym for Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite) will provide important information about how quickly it’s happening.

Since this is ICESat-2, you know there was an earlier ICESat: It launched in 2003 and operated until 2009. Since then, NASA has been taking measurements from airplanes flying over Greenland and Antarctica, a stopgap programme known as Operation IceBridge that has cost about $15 million a year.

NASA isn’t simply replacing the old ICESat. Much of the cost of ICESat-2 went into creating a much more powerful instrument.

The old satellite measured the elevation of the Earth’s ice with a single laser beam; the new gizmo has six, firing 10,000 times a second. All those pulses of light will give this satellite astonishing precision. While the previous satellite took measurements that were spaced apart roughly over the length of a football field at each end zone, the new one will measure between each yard line.

NASA says it will be able to measure the change in elevation of the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland to about 1/6th of an inch, less than the width of a pencil.

The satellite’s instrument, called the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System, or ATLAS, will also measure the heights of forests to determine the amount of vegetation in a region, as well as monitor other attributes of land surfaces, water and clouds.

By precisely measuring the elevation of land ice, ATLAS and ICESat-2 will help scientists develop a better sense of how much and how quickly that ice is melting in a warming world.The New York Times News Service


NASA says it will be able to measure the change in elevation of the ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland to about 1/6th of an inch, less than the width of a pencil.

The satellite’s instrument, called the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System, or ATLAS, will also measure the heights of forests to determine the amount of vegetation in a region, as well as monitor other attributes of land surfaces, water and clouds.

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