NASA to launch satellite tracking Earth's melting ice on Saturday

ICESat-2 will split its laser beam into six beams, to better cover ground (or ice) for observation.

NASA is set to launch its Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2, or ICESat-2 — that will track Earth's melting poles and disappearing sea ice — on Saturday, 15 September.

The satellite with a three-year mission is scheduled to launch at 6.16 pm IST on Saturday, with liftoff aboard a Satellite Delta II rocket from the Space Launch Complex-2 (SLC-2), the US space agency said in a blog post late on Tuesday, 11 September.

ICESat-2 is the NASA's most advanced laser instrument — the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System, or ATLAS.

It 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 the satellite.

The satellite will provide critical observations of how ice sheets, glaciers and sea ice are changing, leading to insights into how those changes impact people where they live, NASA said.

NASA to launch satellite tracking Earths melting ice on Saturday

An artistic representation of NASA's ICESat-1. Image courtesy: NASA

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.

While the first ICESat satellite (2003-09) measured ice with a single laser beam, ICESat-2 splits its laser light into six beams making it 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 are measuring, NASA said.

Further, the ICESat-2 will zoom above the planet at 7 km 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 changes.

All of those height measurements result from timing the individual laser photons on their 965 kilometer roundtrip between the satellite and Earth's surface — a journey that is timed to an accuracy of 800 picoseconds, NASA said.

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