NASA Launching a New Ice Monitoring Tool That Can Identify Changes the Width of a Pencil

©. U.S. Air Force/Vanessa Valentine

NASA is no stranger to monitoring polar ice changes. The space agency has been using their range of technologies to keep tabs on the various effects of climate change and the evidence they've collected of the decline of ice coverage in the polar regions has been one of the clearest indicators of the impact of a warming world.

The agency has launched a couple different satellites in the past that were armed with special ice monitoring tools, but its upcoming ICESat-2 mission will carry the most sophisticated equipment yet. A new instrument onboard called the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS) is a laser altimeter that will be able to measure ice elevation changes on a very small scale, capturing differences in elevation down to the width of a pencil.

The ATLAS will fire six different beams of green light down on polar ice at about 10,000 times per second and then measure how long ti takes for them to return to the spacecraft. The time will be measure down to the billionth of a second, which will enable scientists to precisely map the elevation of the ice and how that is changing over time. The new powerful equipment will be able to scan and measure the ice in a far more efficient way than previous satellites have been able to do. For comparison, it will able to collect 250 times more ice measurements than its predecessor.

The satellite will orbit Earth pole-to-pole, taking elevation measurements along the same path four times a year to create a clear picture of the seasonal ice changes and how they change over time from year to year.

The satellite will be monitoring floating sea ice as well as that on land and it will measure forests heights as well to keep track of features that store carbon. All of this data will help scientists to predict sea level rise and analyze things like wildfire risk and flood hazards.

“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,” said Thorsten Markus, an ICESat-2 project scientist at Goddard. “The capacity and opportunity for true exploration is immense.”

The satellite will launch on September 15, 2018.