NASA's ICESat-2 Laser Fires for 1st Time, Measures Antarctic Height

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#NASA , #Antarctic

Published on 11 October 2018

The laser instrument that launched into orbit last month aboard NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) fired for the first time Sept. 30. With each of its 10,000 pulses per second, the instrument is sending 300 trillion green photons of light to the ground and measuring the travel time of the few that return: the method behind ICESat-2’s mission to monitor Earth’s changing ice. By the morning of Oct. 3, the satellite returned its first height measurements across the Antarctic ice sheet.

A visualization of ICESat-2 data, called a photon cloud, shows the first set of height measurements from the satellite, taken as it orbited over the Antarctic ice sheet. Each blue dot represents a photon detected by the ATLAS instrument. This photon cloud shows the elevation measured by photons in the middle of the ice sheet, following along 6.2 miles (10 kilometers) of the satellite’s ground track, from left to right. The speckled dots are background photons from sunlight, but the thick blue line is actually a concentration of dots that represent laser photons that returned to the ICESat-2 satellite.

“We were all waiting with bated breath for the lasers to turn on and to see those first photons return,” said Donya Douglas-Bradshaw, the project manager for ICESat-2’s sole instrument, called the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System, or ATLAS. “Seeing everything work together in concert is incredibly exciting. There are a lot of moving parts and this is the demonstration that it’s all working together.”

ICESat-2 launched on Sept. 15 to precisely measure heights and how they change over time. It does this by timing how long it takes individual photons to leave the satellite, reflect off the surface, and return to receiver telescope on the satellite. The ATLAS instrument can time photons with a precision of less than a billionth of a second, which allows the mission to detect small changes in the planet’s ice sheets, glaciers and sea ice.

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