NASAs Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) is sending home important scientific data and spectacular 3-D views of Earths polar ice sheets, clouds, mountains, and forestlands. The data are helping scientists understand how life on Earth is affected by changing climate.
ICESat’s single scientific instrument is called GLAS, for Geoscience Laser Altimeter System. It is the first instrument to map our planet using lasers from a dedicated satellite platform. Using one of its three onboard lasers, GLAS precisely measures the time it takes for a pulse of light to travel from the laser to a reflecting object, in this case the Earth’s surface and any intervening clouds, and return to detectors on the satellite. In addition, other parts of GLAS help determine precisely where GLAS is, relative to our world below. Credit: NASA
ICESat is providing scientists with the most accurate measurements of the heights of clouds and critical observations of atmospheric particles called aerosol. This animation shows the distribution of cloud layers as seen from the bird’s-eye perspective of the ICESat spacecraft. Credit: NASA
The principal objective of the ICESat mission, and its Geoscience Laser Altimeter System (GLAS) instrument, is to measure the surface elevations of the large ice sheets covering Antarctica and Greenland and determine how they are changing. Much of an ice sheets behavior and response to changes in climate are apparent in their shape and how that shape changes with time. The laser sends short pulses of green and infrared light to Earth 40 times a second and collects the reflected laser light with a one-meter telescope.
The measurements have provided revolutionary accuracy and detail about the elevation of ice sheets and the elevation structure of land surfaces. ICESat is providing scientists with the most accurate measurements to date of the heights of clouds. It is also providing critical observations of atmospheric particles, called aerosols, over the ice sheets and the rest of the world. These help climate modelers, who reconstruct the past and project future climate.
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