News | September 10, 2018

10 Things to Know About ICESat-2, NASA's Latest Space Laser

By Kate Ramsayer
NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center

UPDATE: ICESat-2 successfully launched on Saturday, Sept. 15, from Space Launch Complex-2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California on United Launch Alliance’s final Delta II rocket.

Did somebody say space laser? NASA just launched ICESat-2, our most advanced laser instrument of its kind, into orbit around Earth on Sept. 15. The Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 will make critical observations of how ice sheets, glaciers and sea ice are changing over time, helping us better understand how those changes affect people where they live.

ICESat-2 in cleanroom

1 Space Laser

There’s only one scientific instrument on ICESat-2, but it’s a marvel. The Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System, or ATLAS, measures height by precisely timing how long it takes individual photons of light from a laser to leave the satellite, bounce off Earth, and return to ICESat-2. Hundreds of people at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center worked to build this smart-car-sized instrument to exacting requirements so that scientists can measure minute changes in our planet’s ice.

Apusiaajik Glacier in Greenland
Sea ice is seen in front of Apusiaajik Glacier in Greenland. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Jim Round

2 Types of Ice

Not all ice is the same. Land ice, like the ice sheets in Greenland and Antarctica, or glaciers dotting the Himalayas, builds up as snow falls over centuries and forms compacted layers. When it melts, it can flow into the ocean and raise sea level. Sea ice, on the other hand, forms when ocean water freezes. It can last for years, or a single winter. When sea ice disappears, there is no effect on sea level (think of a melting ice cube in your drink), but it can change climate and weather patterns far beyond the poles.

Animated GIF showing Ice Heights Visualization

3-Dimensional Earth

ICESat-2 will measure elevation to see how much glaciers, sea ice and ice sheets are rising or falling. NASA’s fleet of satellites collect detailed images of our planet that show changes to features like ice sheets and forests, and with ICESat-2’s data, scientists can add the third dimension – height – to those portraits of Earth.

Animated GIF of ICESat orbits.

4 Seasons, 4 Measurements

ICESat-2’s orbit will make 1,387 unique ground tracks around Earth in 91 days – and then start the same ground pattern again at the beginning. This allows the satellite to measure the same ground tracks four times a year and scientists to see how glaciers and other frozen features change with the seasons – including over winter.

Animate GIF illustrating wavelength

532 Nanometer Wavelength

The ATLAS instrument will measure ice with a laser that shines at 532 nanometers – a bright green on the visible spectrum. When these laser photons return to the satellite, they pass through a series of filters that block any light that’s not exactly at this wavelength. This helps the instrument from being swamped with all the other shades of sunlight naturally reflected from Earth.

Illustration of ICESat-2's lasers

6 Laser Beams

While the first ICESat satellite (2003-2009) measured ice with a single laser beam, ICESat-2 splits its laser light into six beams – the better to cover more ground (or ice). The arrangement of the beams into three pairs will also allow scientists to assess the slope of the surface they’re measuring.

Illustration showing orbits converging around Earth's poles.

7 Kilometers Per Second

ICESat-2 will zoom above the planet at 7 km per second (4.3 miles per second), completing an orbit around Earth in 90 minutes. The orbits have been set to converge at the 88-degree latitude lines around the poles, to focus the data coverage in the region where scientists expect to see the most change.

Illustration showing data going to satellite

800-Picosecond Precision

All of those height measurements come from timing the individual laser photons on their 600-mile roundtrip between the satellite and Earth’s surface – a journey that is timed to within 800 picoseconds. That’s a precision of nearly a billionth of a second. NASA engineers had to custom build a stopwatch-like device, because no existing timers fit the strict requirements.

Three people in aircraft cockpit.

9 Years of Operation IceBridge

As ICESat-2 measures the poles, it adds to NASA’s record of ice heights that started with the first ICESat and continued with Operation IceBridge, an airborne mission that has been flying over the Arctic and Antarctic for nine years. The campaign, which bridges the gap between the two satellite missions, has flown since 2009, taking height measurements and documenting the changing ice.

Illustration of ICESAt-2 over Earth.

10,000 pulses a second

ICESat-2’s laser will fire 10,000 times in one second. The original ICESat fired 40 times a second. More pulses mean more height data. If ICESat-2 flew over a football field, it would take 130 measurements between end zones; its predecessor, on the other hand, would have taken one measurement in each end zone.

Animated GIF showing all the zeros in a trillion.

And One Bonus Number: 300 Trillion

Each laser pulse ICESat-2 fires contains about 300 trillion photons! Again, the laser instrument is so precise that it can time how long it takes individual photons to return to the satellite to within one billionth of a second.