Ice-tracking satellite launches after ten years in the works

NASA mission will measure changes in ice thickness in unprecedented detail.

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Illustration of the ICESat-2 satellite orbiting the earth and scanning with its' laser (green)

An artist's illustration of NASA's latest ice-monitoring probe.Credit: NASA

The Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) launched from the Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on 15 September, kicking off a three-year mission focused on tracking ice thickness. The NASA satellite will also measure cloud heights and forest growth.

The spacecraft’s Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS) can track changes in ice thickness to within half a centimetre per year. The data it collects will provide seasonal and annual information that can better inform predictive models of melting ice and rising sea levels, and clarify the effects of a warming climate on the world’s ice.

The ICESat-2 mission follows on from the first ICESat project, which ended in 2009. Researchers conceived of this latest satellite in 2008, but it took about five years to develop the ATLAS instrument. Technical difficulties and budget considerations then delayed the ICESat-2 launch until this year.

An aerial programme dubbed Operation IceBridge monitored ice at the North and South poles in the intervening years to maintain the data set between satellite missions. That project is funded until 2020.

doi: 10.1038/d41586-018-06673-x

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