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NASA Satellite ICESat-2 Uses Lasers to Track Earth’s Vast Frozen Landscape

Sea-level rise is getting faster, and seas could be several feet higher by the end of the century. Melting ice in Greenland and Antarctica has increased, according to NASA. The mission called the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat-2) will take incredibly precise measurements of ice sheet depth, allowing scientists to add the third dimension they lose when looking at aerial or space-based images of the spread of ice. The US Geological Survey and the navy are interested in the elevation data. With ice melt, new routes are expected to open through the Arctic, significantly reducing shipping times.
The world will soon have a clearer picture of how quickly humans are melting Earth’s ice and expanding the seas with data collected by a sophisticated satellite “ICESat-2” launched by NASA. The satellite, about the size of a Smart car, will point six lasers at ice sheets in the Arctic and Antarctica. It will then calculate low long the beams take to bounce back. So NASA will be able to more accurately measure the heights of ice sheets, and the thickness of remaining sea ice. Thickness is the most important indicator because thinner sea ice is broken up more easily by storms, plus such sea ice melts faster. Between 2003 and 2009, the measured sea ice lost 40% of its thickness.
An original satellite ICESat has been out of commission since 2009, and after that, between 2009 and 2018, NASA has used a plane to take more rudimentary measurements of ice melt for about a month per year in the Arctic and Antarctica. That allowed NASA to monitor the fastest changing parts of the ice sheets and sea ice.
ICESat-2 has just one instrument, which is called the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS), a space-based LIDAR. This laser system produces six finely tuned laser beams of bright-green light, which it beams down to bounce off Earth’s surface. The instrument creates six separate laser beams in three pairs, so scientists can adapt the data if the satellite ends up straying a little from its planned path. The ATLAS laser emits visible laser pulses at 532 nm wavelength and takes elevation measurements every 70 cm along the satellite’s ground path. The laser fires at a rate of 10 kHz. Each pulse sends out about 20 trillion photons. A precious few photons back perfectly to meet the satellite again, although many of them are lost, scattering off in all directions. The aforementioned dozen of photons from each pulse is collected with a beryllium telescope. Beryllium has a high specific strength and holds its shape across a wide range of temperatures. That’s an important advancement from the original ICESat mission, which produced data using a single laser beam.
The new satellite provides more complete coverage and measure to within a centimeter. This spacecraft produces 10,000 pulses of photons every single second. ICESat-2 will orbit from pole to pole, taking measurements all along the way but offering the densest height maps near the poles.
NASA, it should be noted, has an entire fleet of satellites observing Earth, including for signs of climate changes. Scientists and engineers worldwide are researching laser applications in space, not only to consider and test the feasibility of specific uses but also to continue to develop state-of-the-art laser systems so that these applications will improve. There are many applications where fiber lasers are employed in space. Fiber lasers are becoming increasingly attractive for space for the reasons such as their lightweight, small size, and low power consumption.
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