The world’s most advanced space laser is nearly ready to start firing — but don’t worry, there’s no need to call James Bond to help stop it.
Next month, in a live event you can watch through MNN’s social media platforms, NASA will strap its Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) to an ULA Delta II rocket and launch it into a polar orbit some 300 miles above Earth. Over the next three years, the ICESat-2 will use its ATLAS (Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System) instrument to measure the average annual elevation change of land ice covering Greenland and Antarctica.
The ATLAS laser is so advanced, firing 10,000 times each second, that the trillions of photons hitting the ground and bouncing back up to the satellite will accurately measure ice thickness to within the width of a pencil.
“Because ICESat-2 will provide measurements of unprecedented precision with global coverage, it will yield not only new insight into the polar regions, but also unanticipated findings across the globe,” Thorsten Markus, an ICESat-2 project scientist at Goddard said in a statement.
Ice, ice baby
The ICESat-2 is the official sequel to NASA’s original ICESat satellite, which launched in 2003. Whereas the first satellite, which burned up in Earth’s atmosphere in 2010, produced but a single beam, its successor will fire no less than six lasers simultaneously, allowing it to collect more than 250 times as many height measurements.
“In the half a second that it takes a person to blink, ICESat-2 will collect 5,000 elevation measurements in each of its six beams,” Tom Neumann, NASA’s ICESat-2 deputy project scientist, said during a news conference. “That’s every minute of every hour of every day for the next three years.”
You can see NASA scientists talk more about the mission and groundbreaking technology in the beautifully produced video below.
Countdown to launch
According to NASA, the ICESat-2 will measure ice heights along the same path in the polar regions four times a year. In addition, the satellite will also be used to measure the height of ocean and land surfaces, forests, wave heights, and even reservoir levels for regions grappling with intense droughts. While the mission is currently funded for three years, officials say the satellite has enough fuel to continue monitor the Earth for as long as a decade.
“The capacity and opportunity for true exploration is immense,” added Markus.
The ICESat-2 is slated to launch on Sept. 15.