ICESat-2 (Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2)
ICESat-2 is a NASA follow-up mission to ICESat with the goal to continue measuring and monitoring the impacts of the changing environment. The ICESat-2 observatory contains a single instrument, an improved laser altimeter called ATLAS (Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System). ATLAS is designed to measure ice-sheet topography, sea ice freeboard as well as cloud and atmospheric properties and global vegetation. The requirements call for a 5-year operational mission with a goal of 7 years. 1) 2) 3) 4) 5) 6) 7)
Rational and discussion of mission goals: The mass balance of Earth's great ice sheets and their contributions to sea level are key issues in climate variability and change. The relationships between sea level and climate have been identified as critical subjects of study ib the IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) assessments, the CCSP (Climate Change Science Program) strategy, and the U.S. IEOS (International Earth Observing System). Because much of the behavior of ice sheets is manifested in their shape, accurate observations of ice elevation changes are essential for understanding ice sheets' current and likely contributions to sea-level rise.
ICESat-2, with high altimetric fidelity, will provide high-quality topographic measurements that allow estimates of ice sheet volume change. High-accuracy altimetry will also prove valuable for making long-sought repeat estimates of sea ice freeboard and hence sea ice thickness change, which is used to estimate the flux of low-salinity ice out of the Arctic basin into the marginal seas. Altimetry is best (and perhaps only) technique for change studies, because sea ice areas and extends have been well observed from space since the 19070s and significant trends have been shown, but there is no such record for sea ice thickness.
As climate change proceeds, continuous measurements of both land-ice and sea-ice volume will be needed to observe trends, update assessments, and test climate models. The altimetric measurement made with the lidar instrument, along with a higher precision gravity measurement (such as GRACE-FO), would optimally characterize changes in ice sheet volume and mass and directly enhance understanding of the ice sheet contribution to sea-level rise. Coupled with the interferometric synthetic aperture radar in the DESDynI mission, the instrumentation would provide a comprehensive data set for predicting changes in Earth's ice sheets and sea ice.
In addition to studies of ice, the proposed instrument could be used to study changes in the large pool of carbon stored in terrestrial biomass. In particular, the proposed lidar could be used to measure canopy depth and thus estimate land carbon storage to aid in understanding the responses of biomass to changing climate and land management. 8) 9) 10)
Figure 1: Schematic view of mission goals (image credit: NASA)
Figure 2: Changes in Greenland ice from 1986 to 2006 (image credit: NASA)
• Quantify the polar ice sheet mass balance to determine contributions to current and recent sea level change and impacts on ocean circulation
• Determine the seasonal cycle of ice sheet changes
• Determine topographic character of ice sheet changes to assess mechanisms driving that change and constrain ice sheet models
• Estimate sea ice thickness to examine ice/ocean/atmosphere exchanges of energy, mass and moisture.
• Measuring vegetation canopy height as a basis for estimating large-scale biomass and biomass change
• Enhancing the utility of other Earth observation systems through supporting measurements.
The instrument will use micro-pulse multi-beam photon-counting approach. Science and ancillary data will be collected, stored on-board and subsequently downlinked to ground stations via an X-band communications link. This link will also include stored housekeeping telemetry. The observatory will also receive and store/execute commands and transmit real-time housekeeping telemetry via an S-band link to the NASA Ground Network.
The ICESat-2 mission is assigned to NASA/GSFC. The spacecraft is being procured under the GSFC RSDO (Rapid Spacecraft Development Office). In August 2011, NASA selected Orbital ATK, former OSC (Orbital Science Corporation of Dullas, VA, to built the ICESat-2 spacecraft. The contractor is responsible for the design and fabrication of the ICESat-2 spacecraft bus, integration of the government-furnished instrument, satellite-level testing, on-orbit satellite check-out, and continuing on-orbit engineering support. The ICESat-2 spacecraft is being designed, assembled, and tested at Orbital's satellite manufacturing and test facility in Gilbert, Arizona.
Table 1: Overview of key spacecraft parameters
Project development status:
• On 23 June 2018, ICESat-2 engineers at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California successfully finished the final ground-based test of the lasers, which are part of the satellite's sole instrument called the ATLAS (Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System). ICESat-2 is scheduled to launch from Vandenberg on Sept. 12, 2018. 16)
- ATLAS was built at NASA's Goddard
Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, and trucked to a Northrop
Grumman facility in Arizona where it was integrated with the spacecraft
bus that provides power, navigation and communications. The completed
satellite arrived at Vandenberg on June 12.
- In the Astrotech Space Operations cleanroom at Vandenberg, the ICESat-2 team tested both the spacecraft and instrument. NASA ICESat-2 launch integration manager John Satrom reports that the data from these tests have been reviewed and everything is normal.
- Meanwhile at Vandenberg's Space Launch Complex 2 along the Pacific coast, crews from United Launch Alliance are assembling the Delta II rocket that will launch ICESat-2 into space. The first and second stage, the interstage connecting them, and four solid rocket motors are in place. The ICESat-2 mission will mark the final launch for the Delta II, which will then be retired.
- After the successful completion of another round of “aliveness” tests turning on the satellite and instrument at the end of July, the ICESat-2 payload is scheduled to head to the launch pad in late August, according to Satrom.
Figure 4: ICESat-2 is uncrated inside the airlock of the Astrotech processing facility at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California, prior to a successful series of tests of the satellite and its instrument (image credit: USAF 30th Space Wing/Vanessa Valentine)
• February 28, 2018: The ATLAS (Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System) instrument, which was designed, built and tested at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, arrived in Gilbert, Arizona, at Orbital ATK's facility on Feb. 23, where it will be joined with the spacecraft structure. To deliver the instrument safely to the spacecraft for assembly and testing, the ATLAS team developed special procedures for packing, transporting and monitoring the sensitive hardware. 18)
- "There was a lot of care and feeding that went with ATLAS along the road," said Kathy Strickler, ATLAS integration and test lead.
- The trip followed a successful series of tests, designed to ensure the ATLAS instrument will function in the harsh environment of space. After the instrument passed those tests, including some in a thermal vacuum chamber, engineers inspected ATLAS to make sure it was clean and in the correct travel configuration. Then, they attached probes to the instrument that would check for vibrations as well as temperature and humidity.
- "These probes tracked what ATLAS actually sensed when going over road bumps, and what ATLAS felt as far as temperature and humidity," said Jeffrey Twum, the ATLAS transport lead.
- The team then wrapped the instrument - about the size of a Smart Car - in two layers of anti-electrostatic discharge film, to prevent any shocks en route. With its protections in place, a crane lifted ATLAS into a transporter container. The team bolted it to a platform supported by a series of wire-rope coils used to soften the ride, and the cover of the transporter was fastened shut, sealing up the cargo.
- The 2,000-mile trip took four and a half days. The ATLAS instrument is now at Orbital ATK, where engineers will attach it to the spacecraft and conduct additional testing. Then, the complete satellite will be repacked and trucked to its last stop before low-Earth orbit: Vandenberg Air Force Base in California.
• August 16, 2017: Lasers that will fly on NASA’s ICESat-2, are about to be put to the test at the agency’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. 19)
- The sole ICESat-2 instrument, ATLAS (Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System) will measure the elevation of ice sheets, sea ice and glaciers by sending fast-firing laser pulses to the surface and timing how long it takes individual photons to return. With a scheduled launch date of 2018, the instrument now faces several months of testing at Goddard in which engineers will ensure it is ready to operate in the harsh environment of space. This is an intermediate stage of ICESat-2’s testing regimen, and will focus on the flight lasers.
- Starting this fall, ATLAS will go into a test chamber at Goddard where engineers simulate the vacuum of space and can dial temperatures up to 50 C to - 30 C. Engineers will also turn on the two lasers — one primary and one backup — at different power levels to ensure they function correctly, said Anthony Martino, ATLAS instrument scientist at NASA Goddard. One test will include putting the instrument through its paces at different temperatures and taking pictures of the laser pulses to ensure they form a smooth, consistent circle, Martino said, with no rough edges, or dark or light spots.
- “When it’s well behaved like that, it’s much easier to analyze the results that we’ll get,” he said. Other tests involve using mirrors to reflect the laser back into the detector portions of the instrument — but only after decreasing the strength of the beam of light by 13 orders of magnitude (about 10 trillion times), to simulate the weakening of the laser beam as it is scattered by the atmosphere, bounces off Earth and returns.
• September 2016: ICESat-2 Technical Status Summary. 20)
Beyond the ATLAS instrument, all other ICESat‐2 systems are nearing completion including spacecraft, launch vehicle, algorithms, operations planning, and ground systems.
- The mission requirements remain intact through the ongoing flight Laser002 repair.
- The ATLAS management and engineering team has crafted and is implementing a conservative plan to address the recent Laser002 optical slab fracture.
Table 2: ATLAS Instrument – Technical Issue with Laser002
Figure 5: The integrated ATLAS instrument (image credit: NASA, Ref. 20)
• Feb. 18, 2016: ICESat-2 passed its Mission CDR (Critical Design Review)! Now, on to building and testing software and hardware for flight. 21)
• Jan. 17, 2016: ICESat-2 passed its Instrument Critical Design Review! The project is now moving full-speed ahead to Mission CDR and instrument I&T start.
• Dec. 10, 2015: NASA engineers tested the ATLAS instrument's pinpoint accuracy. ATLAS (Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System) will send laser pulses to the ground about 480 km below and then catch the handful of photons that bounce off the surface and return to its telescope mirror. There's very little margin for error when it comes to individual photons hitting on individual fiber optics - so this November, engineers conducted a series of tests on the ground, to ensure that they could hit that mark when ICESat-2 is in orbit. 22)
- This is the first time Goddard has built an automatically correcting and steering mechanism like this for flight. It was necessary for ATLAS, however, because both the receiver's field-of-view and the laser beam diameter are significantly smaller than on previous instruments, so there is less room for the laser to drift off-target. So the AMCS (Alignment Monitoring and Control System) team spent several weeks in November 2015 testing the steering mechanism and the software that controls it.
• February 2015: A NASA team tested part of the ATLAS instrument in a temperature-controlled vacuum chamber at Goddard, ensuring that its interconnected components worked together and functioned as expected. 23)
• November 3, 2014: Engineers at NASA/GSFC fitted the mirrored telescope of ICESat-2 into its place. In a Goddard cleanroom, teams are working in parallel on two sections of ATLAS: the box structure, which holds electronics that control the instrument, and the optical bench, which supports the instrument's lasers, mirrors, and the 0.8 m, 20.8 kg beryllium telescope that collects light. 24)
- Each ATLAS laser pulse contains more than 200 trillion photons, but only a dozen or so return to the telescope, where they're sent via optical fibers to the instrument's detectors. To catch those few photons, the telescope and its associated equipment, called the RTA (Receiver Telescope Assembly), need to align perfectly to the laser.
Figure 6: Engineers and technicians check the fit of ICESat-2's telescope to its sling, before moving it into place on the instrument's optical bench (image credit: NASA)
• Sept. 1, 2014: Due to cost overruns, the launch of ICESat-2 has slipped to June 2018. ICESat-2’s overrun was driven primarily by technical difficulties with the ATLAS (Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System) instrument. 25)
• May 2014: The box structure of the ATLAS instrument was delivered to a clean room at NASA/GSFC (Figure 30). A team of 250 engineers, fabricators and scientists has now started the official integration and testing stage of the laser instrument (Ref. 48).
Figure 7: An engineer checks the ATLAS box structure, shortly after its arrival in a NASA clean room in May 2014 (image credit: NASA, Kate Ramsayer)
• February 18, 2014: ICESat-2 passed its Mission Critical Design Review! Now, on to building and testing software and hardware for flight.
• January 17, 2014: ICESat-2 passed its Instrument CDR (Critical Design Review)! The project is now moving full-speed ahead to Mission CDR and instrument I&T start.
• In December 2013, NASA notified Congress of expected budget increases ($200 million overrun) on the ICESat-2 mission. NASA is required by law to inform Congress when a mission appears likely to overrun its approved budget by more than 15%. This may cause possible launch delays. 26)
• Sept. 6, 2013: ICESat-2 passed its Ground Systems CDR (Critical Design Review). An independent review board met Sept. 3-5 , 2013at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, MD, to examine details of the entire design of the mission's ground system, including the MOC (Mission Operations Center), the ISF (Instrument Support Facility), and the Science Investigator-led Processing System.
• The ICESat-2 mission was assigned Phase C status on December 17, 2012.
• The ICESat-2 project passed instrument PDR (Preliminary Design Review) on Nov. 18, 2011.
• The ICESat-2 team passed the SRR (System Requirements Review) on May 25, 2011.
• The ICESat-2 team passed the ISRE (Instrument System Requirements Review) on December 1, 2010.
• The ICESat-2 team passed the Key Decision Point A (KDP-A) review at HQ on December 11, 2009. Since then the project started officially in Phase A.
Launch: The ICESat-2 spacecraft was launched on 15 September 2018 (13:02 UTC) from VAFB, CA (Space Launch Complex -2W) on a Delta-II 7420-10 vehicle configuration. The launch service provider was ULA (United Launch Alliance). 27) 28) 29)
This marked the final launch of the Delta II rocket series. ULA's Delta II rocket has provided dependable access to space for the U.S. military, NASA and commercial clients for nearly 30 years, launching 154 times since its debut on Feb. 14, 1989. The lasting legacy of the Delta II extends from creating modern GPS navigation on Earth to roving the surface of Mars.
Figure 8: The ULA Delta-II rocket with NASA's ICESat-2 onboard is seen shortly after the mobile service tower at SLC-2 was rolled back on 15 September 2018, at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California (image credit: NASA)
Orbit: Near polar LEO frozen orbit, altitude =496 km, inclination = 92º, repeat cycle of 91 days with subcycles of 29, 29, and 33 days (Figure 9).
The secondary payloads on IceSat-2 are:
In addition to ICESat-2, this mission includes four cubesats that will launch from dispensers mounted to the Delta II’s second stage.
• ELFIN (Electron Losses and Fields Investigation), a pair of 3U CubeSats of UCLA (University of California Los Angeles). 30)
• SurfSat (Surface charging Satellite), a 2U CubeSat mission developed at the UCF (University of Central Florida), Orlando, FL.
• CP-7 (CalPoly-7) or DAVE (Damping And Vibrations Experiment), a 1U CubeSat, a collaboration of Northrop Grumman Aerospace Systems and CalPoly.
• July 29, 2019: For nearly a year, the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS) on NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) has been measuring the height of Earth’s surfaces in remarkable detail—down to about 10 vertical centimeters. The elevation measurement above from Crater Lake in south-central Oregon was acquired by ATLAS on June 24, 2019, and shows what is possibly the instrument’s first overflight of a volcano. 31)
- The elevation data show the distinct topography of Mount Mazama and the crater lake that fills its caldera. For reference, the elevation track has been laid over a map of the lake and surrounding terrain. The map shows land cover, derived from a Landsat-based dataset, overlaid on a map of the topography as observed by NASA’s Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM).
- Moving from left to right (south to north), you can see the elevation increase gently and then more steeply up the flank of the volcano. The smaller-scale bumps are mostly tree tops. Where most satellite images offer a two-dimensional view of land cover, ICESat-2 provides a third dimension: tree height.
- The track next crosses Sun Notch—a classic u-shaped valley that was carved by glaciers during the formation of the mountain. Some valleys were filled with lava during periods of eruptions. Others, including Sun Notch, escaped that fate. Hikers today can walk through this valley to the Sun Notch overlook on the crater’s southern rim.
- The elevation then plummets hundreds of meters from the rim to the surface of Crater Lake. The 8- to 10-kilometer-wide caldera is the result of an enormous eruption and mountain collapse about 7,700 years ago. The lake that now fills the caldera is more than 580 meters (1,900 feet) deep, filling about half of the caldera’s depth. Crater Lake is the deepest lake in the United States, and the ninth deepest on Earth. The lake is too deep to see the bathymetry (ICESat-2 can measure bathymetry to a depth of 10 meters or more), but measurements of its surface elevation could be of interest to hydrologists.
- “This transect highlights how ICESat-2 elevation measurements provide interesting observations to a diverse number of scientists,” said Lori Magruder, a scientist at the University of Texas and the ICESat-2 science team lead. “Terrestrial ecologists would be interested in looking at the terrain around the lake as an indication of habitat quality. Others might investigate the vegetation to link the canopy heights to biomass estimates. Finally, the hydrologist would be interested in the lake level as an indicator of rainfall, groundwater flow, or evaporation.”
- Since ICESat-2 data were made available to the public in May 2019, scientists have started applying it to the mission objectives of measuring ice sheet elevation change, sea ice freeboard, and vegetation canopy height. Within the first six weeks of the the data release, more than 350 users made about 500,000 data downloads, and those data are already starting to show up in the scientific literature.
- “ICESat-2 is rapidly approaching one year on orbit, and the ATLAS instrument and spacecraft remain in nearly perfect working order,” said Tom Neumann, ICESat-2 project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. “The initial data form ICESat-2 and its ATLAS laser instrument are exceeding scientists expectations.”
Figure 10: Elevation data show the distinct topography of Mount Mazama and the crater lake that fills its caldera [image credit: NASA Earth Observatory image by Joshua Stevens, using ICESat-2 data courtesy of Kaitlin Harbeck (NASA Goddard Space Flight Center), Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey, and topographic data from the Shuttle Radar Topography Mission (SRTM). Story by Kathryn Hansen]
• July 29, 2019: Far more accurate than any previous map, this new representation of glacier flows in Antarctica opens the door to an improved understanding of the vast continent and the future pace of sea level rise. To create the new map, researchers at the University of California, Irvine, and NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, combined input from six different satellite missions dating from 1994 to the present. 32)
Figure 11: This new NASA/UC Irvine map of ice velocity in Antarctica is 10 times more accurate than any previous map and shows flows over 80% of the continent, where older maps showed about 20%. Colored lines indicate direction of flow; background colors show speed (image credit: UCI/Jeremie Mouginot)
- All earlier maps of glacier flow speeds have estimated the speeds largely by tracking the movement of visible features like patches of dirt on the ice surface, but these new maps rely mainly on observations that use a technique called synthetic aperture radar interferometry, which is much more sensitive to the motion of the ice itself. By combining observations from multiple satellites passing over the continent in different directions, the researchers produced a map that is not only 10 times more accurate than any previous map but also shows speeds for far more of the slow-moving ice on the continental interior than ever before. 33)
- Constructed from a quarter century’s worth of satellite data, a new map of Antarctic ice velocity by glaciologists from UCI (University of California, Irvine) and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is the most precise ever created. 34)
- “By utilizing the full potential of interferometric phase signals from satellite synthetic-aperture radars, we have achieved a quantum leap in the description of ice flow in Antarctica,” said lead author Jeremie Mouginot, UCI associate researcher in Earth system science. “This more detailed representation will help improve our understanding of ice behavior under climate stress over a larger part of the continent, farther south, and will enable improved projections of sea level rise through numerical models.”
- To chart the movement of ice sheets across the surface of the enormous land mass, the researchers combined input from six satellite missions: the Canadian Space Agency’s Radarsat-1 and Radarsat-2; the European Space Agency’s Earth remote sensing satellites 1 and 2 and Envisat ASAR; and the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency’s ALOS PALSAR-1.
- While the data were spread across 25 years, the pace of signal gathering accelerated in the last decade as more resources were deployed in the Earth’s orbit. As ice sheet science coordinator in the World Meteorological Organization’s Polar Space Task Group, co-author Bernd Scheuchl, UCI associate project scientist in Earth system science, was responsible for acquiring the relevant data from the various international space agencies.
- Previous mapping efforts relied heavily on “feature” and “speckle tracking” methods, which detect the subtle motion of parcels of ice on the ground over time; this approach has been proven effective in estimating ice flow speed. To measure significantly slower ice sheet movement in the vast interior regions, the UCI team augmented these techniques with synthetic-aperture radar phase interferometry, which detects the subtle motion of natural reflectors of radar signals in snow/ice independent of the size of the parcel of ice illuminated by the radar.
- “The interferometric phase of SAR data measures the ice deformation signal with a precision of up to two orders of magnitude better than speckle tracking,” Mouginot said. “A drawback is that it requires a lot more data, namely multiple passes at different angles over the same point on the ground – a problem that was solved by a consortium of international space agencies pointing Earth-monitoring spacecrafts to this part of the world.”
- The team was able to compose a map that resolves ice movement to a level of 20 cm/year in speed and 5 degrees in annual flow direction for more than 70 percent of Antarctica. It’s the first time that high-precision mapping of the interior areas has been accomplished.
- “This product will help climate scientists achieve a number of goals, such as a better determination of the boundaries between glaciers and a thorough evaluation of regional atmospheric climate models over the entire continent,” said co-author Eric Rignot, chair and Donald Bren Professor of Earth System Science at UCI and a JPL senior research scientist.
- “It will also help in locating the most promising sites for ice core drilling to extract climate records and in examining the mass balance of Antarctica beyond its periphery.”
- He said he’s looking forward to the joint NASA and Indian Space Research Organization satellite, NISAR, launching in late 2021, which will be the first interferometric-mode SAR mission designed to look solely toward the South Pole. The spacecraft will provide a coast-to-coast view of Antarctica every 12 days.
- “We’ll be able to collect enough quality phase data over the Antarctic to generate updates to the map we just created in one or two months instead of one or two decades,” Rignot said. “With this level of precision in the interior regions, we’ll be able to reconstruct high-resolution spatial details in the bed topography beneath the ice through inversion techniques over far broader areas than in previous attempts – essential to improving ice sheet models and projections of sea level rise from Antarctica.”
- The new Antarctic ice velocity map and related datasets are available for download at the NASA Distributed Active Archive Center at the National Snow & Ice Data Center. This project was supported by NASA’s MEaSUREs program.
• May 28, 2019: More than a trillion new measurements of Earth’s height – blanketing everything from glaciers in Greenland, to mangrove forests in Florida, to sea ice surrounding Antarctica – are now available to the public. With millions more observations added each day, data from NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 is providing a precise global portrait of elevation and will allow scientists to track even the slightest changes in the planet’s polar regions. 35)
- “The data from ICESat-2 are really blowing our minds, and I’m really excited to see what people with different perspectives will do with it,” said Lori Magruder, a senior research scientist at the University of Texas, Austin, and the ICESat-2 science team lead.
- The long-awaited ICESat-2 mission, launched in September 2018, continues the record of polar height data begun with the first ICESat satellite, which operated from 2003 to 2009. NASA’s airborne Operation IceBridge project bridged the data gap between the two satellites. The new satellite provides far more measurements than its predecessor. ICESat took approximately 2 billion measurements in its lifetime, a figure ICESat-2 surpassed within its first week.
- When ICESat orbited over a rift in Antarctica’s Filchner-Ronne Ice Shelf in October 2008, for example, it recorded a handful of data points indicating a crevasse in the ice. When ICESat-2 passed over 10 years later, it collected hundreds of measurements tracing the sheer walls and jagged floor of the growing rift.
- ICESat-2 is taking these measurements in a dense grid across the Arctic as well as Antarctica, recording each spot every season to track both seasonal and annual changes in ice.
- ICESat-2’s ability to measure heights beyond the poles is also impressing scientists – Magruder pointed to coastal areas, where in clear waters the satellite can detect the seafloor up to 30 m below the surface. Over forests, the satellite not only detects the top of the canopy, but the forest floor below – which will allow researchers to calculate the mass of vegetation in a given area.
- All this is being done with six laser beams from a satellite 500 km in space, noted Tom Neumann, ICESat-2 project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland.
- “Getting the exact latitude, longitude, and elevation of where a photon bounced off Earth is hard – lots of things have to happen and go really, really well,” he said. To make sure everything is working, the science team conducts a series of checks using data from airborne surveys, ground-based campaigns, even the satellite itself.
- That includes scientists travelling to Antarctica, where they drove modified snow-groomers along an arc of the 88-degree-south latitude line, taking highly accurate elevation measurements to compare with the data collected by ICESat-2 in space. Magruder compared measurements taken in White Sands, New Mexico, with what the satellite was tracking. In its most recent Antarctic and Arctic campaigns, NASA’s airborne Operation IceBridge flew specific routes designed to take measurements over the same ice, at close to or exactly the same time the satellite flew overhead.
- ICESat-2 is designed to precisely measure the height of ice and track how it changes over time. Earth’s melting glaciers cause sea levels to rise globally, and shrinking sea ice can change weather and climate patterns far from the planet’s poles.
- Small changes across vast areas like the Greenland ice sheet can have large consequences. ICESat-2 will be able to measure the shift in annual elevation across the ice sheet to within a fraction of an inch. To do this, the satellite uses a laser altimeter – an instrument that times how long it takes light to travel to Earth’s surface and back. With that time – along with the knowledge of where in space ICESat-2 is, and where on Earth the laser is pointing – computer programs create a height data point. The data is originally processed at NASA Goddard, then turned into advanced data products that researchers will be able to use to study elevations across the globe.
- ICESat-2 data products are now available for free from the National Snow and Ice Data Center at https://nsidc.org/data/icesat-2.
Figure 12: To assess the accuracy of the newly released ICESat-2 data, a NASA team set out to the South Pole. For the second-straight year, the team endured below-freezing temperatures, biting winds, and high altitude to conduct a traverse along the 88 degree south latitude line, taking highly accurate GPS measurements to compare with those from the satellite (image credit: NASA Goddard/ Kelly Brunt)
Figure 13: For the second straight year, NASA researchers endured low temperatures, biting winds, and high altitude to conduct another 88-South Traverse. The 470-mile expedition in one of the most barren landscapes on Earth provides the best means of assessment of the accuracy of data collected from space by the Ice Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2), video credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center/Ryan Fitzgibbons
• January 29, 2019: NASA's ICESat-2 was launched in September 2018 and became the highest-resolution laser altimeter ever operated from space. The satellite is now measuring the height of Earth’s surfaces in remarkable detail. In this series, NASA Earth Observatory is sharing three early views that highlight the breadth of what ICESat-2 can “see”—from Antarctica’s icy terrain and sea ice to the forested landscape in Mexico. 36)
- The ICESat-2 satellite is already changing the way we look at Earth’s polar ice. But the satellite also collects detailed elevation measurements over tropical and temperate latitudes, providing a remarkable look at the heights of land and ocean features.
- ATLAS (Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System) measures elevation by sending pulses of light to Earth’s surface. It then measures, to within a billionth of a second, how long it takes individual photons to return to the sensor. Each dot on the visualization above represents a photon detected by ATLAS. Most of the dots in this “photon cloud” are clustered around a surface, whether that’s a tree top, the ground, or waves in the ocean.
- Along this orbital path from north to south (left to right of Figure 14) you first see a vegetated hillside sloping down toward the coastline. ICESat-2 can distinguish not only the tops of trees but also the inner canopies and the forest floor. Eventually, tree height data collected globally will improve estimates of how much carbon is stored in forests.
- As the path continues past the coastline, photons returned from the seafloor become visible. Bathymetry measurements like this are possible in clear coastal areas, sometimes as deep as 25 meters. According to Lori Magruder, a research scientist at the University of Texas and the ICESat-2 science team lead, the measurements could help with storm surge modeling. “Seeing such extensive bathymetry was a pleasant surprise,” she said. “We didn’t anticipate that.”
- Finally, as the path moves beyond Laguna del Mar Muerto and over the Pacific Ocean, the surface of the water is visibly rougher and the photons trace the height of individual waves. With this kind of information, scientists can start to look at things like the frequency of surface waves and their structure.
- “We were all taken aback seeing the amazing detail from ICESat-2,” Magruder said. “On every surface, there was some amazing feature that we weren’t used to getting from the first ICESat.”
Figure 14: A forested hillside in Mexico is visible in the elevation measurement, acquired on October 19, 2018, by ATLAS (Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System) on ICESat-2. For reference, the orbital path is laid over a natural-color image acquired on January 11, 2017, by OLI (Operational Land Imager) on Landsat-8 (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, image by Joshua Stevens, using ICESat-2 data courtesy of Kaitlin Harbeck, NASA/GSFC, and Landsat data from the U.S. Geological Survey. Story by Kathryn Hansen with materials from Kate Ramsayer)
• December 12, 2018: NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) was launched on 15 September 2018 and became the highest-resolution laser altimeter ever operated from space. The satellite is now measuring the height of Earth’s surfaces in remarkable detail. In this series, NASA Earth Observatory is sharing three early views that highlight the breadth of what ICESat-2 can “see.” 37)
- As scientists examined the first elevation data from the new ICESat-2 satellite, they saw vast, smooth stretches across Antarctica. Indeed, most of the continent’s snow- and ice-topped surface is flat. So too are the parts of an ice sheet that spread over the water, such as the Ross Ice Shelf. But there are some places where the terrain rises and falls steeply, such as the Transantarctic Mountains dividing East and West Antarctica.
Figure 15: New elevation measurements of the ATLAS instrument on ICESat-2 span the continent’s icy surfaces, from the flat Ross Ice Shelf to the rugged Transantarctic Mountains (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, image by Joshua Stevens, using ICESat-2 data courtesy of Kaitlin Harbeck, NASA/GSFC, story by Kathryn Hansen)
Legend to Figure 15: The rugged terrain of the Queen Maud Mountains—a subdivision of the Transantarctic Mountains—is visible in the elevation measurement, acquired on October 26, 2018, by ATLAS (Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System) on ICESat-2. For reference, the orbital path is laid over a natural-color image acquired on 23 November 2018, by the MODIS (Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer) instrument on NASA’s Terra satellite.
- The ATLAS instrument measures elevation by sending pulses of light to Earth’s surface. It then measures, to within a billionth of a second, how long it takes individual photons to return to the satellite. Each dot on the visualization of Figure 15 represents a photon detected by ATLAS. Some of the dots in this “photon cloud” are photons from the Sun that reflected from the snow, but the densest areas form a line that indicate the height of a surface.
- “ICESat-2 can track the surface nicely over some difficult terrain. It can resolve small valleys in the mountains that are really hard to see in other altimetry data,” said Benjamin Smith, a glaciologist at the University of Washington. Some of these mountain slopes are very steep, with angles of more than 45 degrees. “Think about trying to stand up on something like that. It’s a pretty severe slope.”
- Not only is ICESat-2 showing more detail than previous space-based altimeters, it is also filling in existing gaps in coverage. Orbiting over more southern latitudes than ever before, the satellite can start to show changes closer to Antarctica’s center, where there are still large unknowns in how the ice is changing. Scientists think the changes are small, but the Antarctic Plateau is so vast that even very small changes to the height of the ice can lead to large changes in sea level.
- “Very soon we will have measurements that we can compare to older measurements from the first ICESat,” Smith said. ICESat flew from 2003 to 2010. “Then after a year we will have repeat measurements form ICESat-2 and can begin to watch ice sheets change in real time.”
• December 11, 2018: The first months of ICESat-2 data collected over Arctic and Antarctic sea ice reveal thin ice, thick ice, and features such as ice ridges. Areas of open water in the cracks between the ice floes, called leads, stand out in the data because of the difference in reflectivity between ice and water. By comparing the height of that water surface in the leads with the height of the ice, scientists are estimating ice freeboard and thickness. With the high precision of ICESat-2, plus the satellite’s six beams taking data simultaneously, researchers will have an unprecedented understanding of the thickness of sea ice, which will be used to help improve climate modeling and forecasts. 38)
- On thin ice: ”When sea ice first forms on polar oceans, before snow falls on it and wind smashes it into other floes, it is thin, flat and smooth. Which makes it a good place to test out how precise ICESat-2 data is, since long stretches should all be nearly the same height,” said Ron Kwok, a sea ice scientist at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. So far? “The data’s spectacular,” Kwok said. “The fresh ice is totally flat to within a couple centimeters.”
- Plus, the ability to identify newly formed, thin ice will help researchers track the seasonal changes in remote polar regions, and understand the processes that drive those processes. The ice-thickness data will also help scientists improve computer models of how sea ice responds to Arctic warming, as well as forecasts of sea ice cover.
- “We’ll have much higher resolution of where it’s ice and where it’s water in the marginal ice zones, where the compact ice cover meets the ocean, during melt and freeze-up,” Kwok said. “That’s going to be new science to think about. “
Figure 16: Sea ice of different thickness and bumpiness is broken up by the cracks between floes, called leads, in this graph of photon returns from ICESat-2 as it orbits over the Weddell Sea in Antarctica (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens)
- Beyond ice: ICESat-2 is always on, taking measurements not only at the poles but also in the tropical and temperate latitudes, and what it can see has already surprised researchers.
- “We were all taken aback seeing the amazing detail from ICESat-2, thanks to its detection technology,” said Lori Magruder, a research scientist at the University of Texas and the ICESat-2 science team lead. “On every surface, there was some amazing feature that we weren’t used to seeing with the first ICESat.”
- For example, photons returning from over the ocean trace individual waves. In clear coastal areas, the bathymetry is visible, sometimes as deep as 25 meters, which could help with research including storm surge modeling, Magruder said.
- And as ICESat-2 orbits over forests, it can distinguish not only the tops of trees but also the inner canopies and the forest floor. While the team was unsure how clear the terrain would be under dense canopies like those found in tropical rainforests, the data turned out even better than expected. By measuring tree heights globally, the ICESat-2 mission will be able to improve estimates of how much carbon is stored in forests.
Figure 17: ICESat-2 is on all the time - and so takes height measurements over land, forests and oceans as well as ice. As it orbited over Mexico, the satellite measurements who the height of trees as well as the forest floor, plus the bathymetry of a lagoon and the ocean waves beyond (image credits: NASA Earth Observatory/Joshua Stevens)
- Checking the numbers, bridging the gap: As the ICESat-2 science team was analyzing the first sets of data, colleagues with NASA’s Operation IceBridge were collecting data in aircraft over Antarctica – flying over the same paths that the satellite was orbiting.
- Over vast plains of rippling ice, craggy peaks poking through the ice sheet, and lines of crevasses marching down glaciers, the airborne campaign measured surface elevation with the Airborne Topographic Mapper’s laser altimeters, snow and ice thickness with radars, and sub-ice-shelf bathymetry with a gravimeter. For a decade, IceBridge has been surveying the region, but this fall they were also gathering data to help check the accuracy of ICESat-2.
- In three separate flights, IceBridge surveyed the flat plateau along the 88-degree-south latitude line where all ICESat-2 orbits converge. Other flights tracked across glaciers, ice streams and mountains along individual satellite paths – at times right as the satellite passed overhead. To measure sea ice, the IceBridge team flew briefly at 500 feet to measure wind speed, calculated how far the ice had moved since ICESat-2 measured it, and then adjusted the flight path to survey the same patch of ice.
- “Almost every flight has ICESat-2 tracks incorporated into it,” said Joseph MacGregor, IceBridge project scientist at NASA Goddard. “We fly over fast-changing outlet glaciers, the slower-changing interior, and uncommon surfaces that are interesting to ICESat-2. The primary goal for IceBridge is to bridge the gap between ICESat and ICESat-2, so it’s very rewarding to know that we’re completing that process.”
- The first ICESat satellite operated between 2003 and 2009, which is when IceBridge began its campaigns. ICESat-2 launched on 15 September from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. Its laser instrument, called ATLAS (Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System), sends pulses of light to Earth. It then times, to within a billionth of a second, how long it takes individual photons to return to the satellite. ATLAS has fired its laser more than 50 billion times since first turning on Sept. 30, and all the metrics from the instrument show it is working as it should, Neumann said.
Figure 18: Sea ice forms in the open water between floes, called leads, in the Bellingshausen Sea. ICESat-2 is able to detect the thin sea ice, allowing scientists to more accurately track seasonal ice formation (image credit: NASA)
• October 3, 2018: The laser instrument that launched into orbit last month aboard NASA’s ICESat-2 (Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2) fired for the first time on September 30. With each of its 10,000 pulses/s, 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. 39)
- “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 ATLAS (Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System). “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.”
- Once ICESat-2 was in space, the ATLAS team waited to turn on the lasers for about two weeks to allow any Earthly contaminants or gases to dissipate. “It’s very critical when you fire the lasers that you don’t have contaminants because you could damage the optics,” Douglas-Bradshaw said. “Fourteen days is well beyond the time needed for that, but we wanted to be safe.”
- During those two weeks, the ICESat-2 operations team turned on and tested the various systems and subsystems of the spacecraft and instrument, and fired thrusters to start placing the satellite in its final polar orbit, approximately 500 km above Earth.
- Before the laser was even turned on, however, the team eagerly awaited another milestone, Douglas-Bradshaw said. The door that protected the telescope and detector elements during launch had to be opened. The team had two chances to release one of two spring-loaded pins to open the door. This was successfully accomplished on 29 September.
- The following day, it was the laser’s turn. The engineering team had been working with the operations team that controls the instrument on orbit, so the commands were ready to go — first turning on the laser itself, waiting for it to warm up, and then issuing commands to put it in fire mode.
- The laser energy levels jumped up, and the device that starts ATLAS’s sophisticated stopwatch was active — two different, independent indicators that the laser was firing away. “We were all incredibly excited and happy, everyone was taking pictures of the screens showing data plots,” Douglas-Bradshaw said. “Someone noted: ‘Now we have a mission, now we have an instrument.’”
- Three days later, the ICESat-2 team had the first segment of height data, taken as the satellite flew over Antarctica.
- Computer programmers were up all night analyzing the latitude, longitude and elevation represented by each photon that returned to the ATLAS instrument — and by 6 a.m., Tom Neumann, ICESat-2 deputy project scientist, was texting screenshots of the height data to the rest of the team.
- “It was awesome,” Neumann said. “Having it in space, and not just simulating data on the ground, is amazing. This is real light that went from ATLAS to Earth and back again.”
- When scientists analyze the preliminary ICESat-2 data, they examine what is called a “photon cloud,” or a plot of each photon that ATLAS detects. Many of the points on a photon cloud are from background photons — natural sunlight reflected off Earth in the exact same wavelength as the laser photons. But with the help of computer programs that analyze the data, scientists can extract the signal from the noise and identify height of the ground below.
- The first photon cloud generated by ICESat-2 shows a stretch of elevation measurements from East Antarctica (Figure 19), passing close to the South Pole at a latitude of 88 degrees south, then continuing between Thwaites Glacier and Pine Island Glacier in West Antarctica.
- Next up for ICESat-2 is a suite of procedures to optimize the instrument, Neumann said, including tests to ensure the laser is pointing at the precisely correct angle and lasing at the precisely correct wavelength to allow as many photons as possible to hit the detector. “It will take a couple of additional weeks,” he said, “but about one month after launch we’ll hopefully start getting back some excellent science-quality data.”
Figure 19: 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 10 km 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 (image credit: NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center)
• September 15, 2018: Ground stations in Svalbard, Norway, acquired signals from the spacecraft about 75 minutes after launch. It’s performing as expected and orbiting the globe, from pole to pole (Ref. 27).
- “With this mission we continue humankind’s exploration of the remote polar regions of our planet and advance our understanding of how ongoing changes of Earth’s ice cover at the poles and elsewhere will affect lives around the world, now and in the future,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
ICESat-2 synergies with other atmospheric missions: 40)
ICESat-2 is expected to at least partially overlap with the operation of ADM/Aeolus and EarthCARE, during the 2018 to 2022 period. Overlap between ICESat-2 and CALIPSO and CATS is a bit more dubious: CALIPSO is already well beyond its projected mission lifetime and CATS (Cloud-Aerosol Transport System) on ISS has license to operate through February 2018, perhaps longer (it had a six-month requirement and three-year goal). There is, however, a possibility of a CATS “follow-on” mission (that would be known as CATS-I), which has been submitted in response to an Earth Venture Instrument-3 Announcement of Opportunity. Nevertheless, discussion on complimentary measurements during the meeting encompassed all instruments.
Figure 20: The bar chart shows the current projected timetables for the atmospheric missions. The circle shows the area of possible overlap with ICESat-2 (image credit: NASA, Sabrina Delgado Arias)
Sensor complement: (ATLAS)
ATLAS (Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System)
ICESat-2 will use a new type of laser altimeter instrument, ATLAS, for measuring elevation, and will acquire far more data. To test the instrument concept, and develop accurate software to process the data, NASA has been flying an instrument called MABEL (Multiple Altimeter Beam Experimental Lidar) on high-altitude aircraft (ER-2) to simulate measurements that the ATLAS (Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System) — GLAS’s successor–will be making from space. 41) 42)
Table 3: ATLAS instrument science measurement requirements (Ref. 46)
MABEL and ATLAS are photon-counting laser altimeters, meaning they measure distance by detecting just a few photons from each laser pulse and timing their round-trip travel from satellite to earth and back extremely accurately. While GLAS used millions of photons to make a single distance measurement, MABEL and ATLAS gather a data set of just a few dozen photons at most, and produce a cloud of points describing the snow or land or vegetation surface structure. Sophisticated software will determine the location of the surface track, the tops of the tree canopy, or the amount of dust or fog in the air.
The original design of the ATLAS instrument for ICESat-2 evolved as a modified version of the ICESat GLAS instrument concept. More specifically, for ICESat-2, the original ATLAS design was a single-beam altimetry system with the laser transmitter operating at a slightly higher repetition rate (50 Hz), lower energy per pulse (50 mJ) and similar 6-7 ns pulse width at the near-infrared (NIR) wavelength of 1064 nm when compared to GLAS. These changes would have provided higher derating on the lasers and potentially longer mission life.
In 2009, the ATLAS instrument on ICESat-2 underwent a complete redesign during the pre-Phase A activities to accommodate more science objectives and incorporate recommendations from the ICESat-2 science workshop (June 2007). For ice sheets, improved pointing will reduce the uncertainty in the ice sheet elevations introduced by the cross-track surface slope. In addition, for land topography and vegetation, improved pointing will provide observations along exact repeat ground tracks, and sampling along uniformly spaced ground tracks will provide well-sampled grids of topography and biomass. Based on this and other recommendations, a new instrument concept was proposed and accepted by the ICESat-2 program. 43) 44) 45) 46) 47) 48) 49)
The new baselined instrument is a high repetition rate (10 kHz), micropulse laser altimeter system. GSFC has begun an in-house program to investigate various potential laser technologies to meet the laser requirements for the ATLAS instrument.
A single laser transmitter having sufficient laser energy will be split into multiple beams using a DOE (Diffractive Optical Element) similar to the one used on LOLA. The current instrument architecture consists of a 9-beam system arranged in a 3 x 3 configuration.
Figure 21: Measurement concept of the ATLAS instrument (image credit: NASA)
In contrast to the first ICESat mission, ICESat-2 will use micro-pulse multi-beam photon counting approach to provide:
- Dense cross-track sampling to resolve surface slopes on an orbit basis
- High repetition rate (10 kHz) generates dense along-track sampling (~70 cm)
- Different beam energies to provide necessary dynamic range (bright / dark surfaces)
The advantages are:
- Improved elevation estimates over high slope areas and very rough (e.g. crevassed) areas
- Improved lead detection for sea ice freeboard.
The ATLAS instrument is a multi-beam micropulse laser altimeter with the following features:
• Single laser beam split into 9 beams
• 10 m ground footprints
• 10 kHz repetition rate laser (~1 mJ)
• Multiple detector pixels per spot
• On-board boresight alignment system
• LRS (Laser Reference System) gives absolute laser pointing knowledge.
Figure 22: Schematic of the ATLAS instrument (image credit: NASA)
ATLAS will employ a micropulse laser transmitter frequency doubled to 532 nm (visible green) with a 1 ns FWHM pulse width and operating at a 10 kHz repetition rate (0.7 m along-profile footprint sampling). A narrow 20 µrad beam divergence from a 500 km orbit altitude will yield 10 m diameter footprints. To improve spatial sampling ATLAS will employ a DOE (Diffractive Optic Element) that will split the single transmit beam into 6 beams, creating a pattern consisting of 3 sets of 2 closely spaced (< 100 m) beams. The closely-spaced beam pairs will resolve local slope, enabling determination of real elevation change from a single repeat of a reference track (Ref. 4).
With ICESat-2 operating in a 91 day repeat orbit and ATLAS operating continuously, seasonal observations of inter-annual ice sheet elevation change will be possible. The beam pairs will be separated cross-track by 3 km, providing improved spatial coverage as compared to that of ICESat. Over land, rather than repeating reference tracks, spacecraft pointing will be used to systematically displace the profiles cross-track through time in order to build up dense global sampling of topography and vegetation over the course of the mission.
In the traditional analog Si:APD detection approach used by GLAS of ICESat-1, thousands of photons reflected from the Earth’s surface were acquired per laser fire (for clear atmospheric conditions) in order to obtain waveforms with sufficient SNR to achieve the 3 cm ranging precision. In the ATLAS micropulse approach the transmit pulse energy will be significantly lower such that only a few to ~10 photons will be detected per footprint per laser fire using a 0.8 m diameter telescope and photon-sensitive Photomultiplier Tube (PMT) detector arrays. Laser fire times and the arrival time of each photon, those reflected from the surface as well as from solar background noise, will be time tagged with 0.15 ns precision yielding < 20 cm single-photon range precision. Post-processing on the ground will yield “point clouds” of geolocated single photon surface returns. An advantage of this approach is that the combination of small, oversampled footprints, narrow pulse width and high-precision timing can yield elevation data of higher spatial and vertical resolution. In addition the geospatial information content of the point cloud is amenable to a greater diversity of analysis approaches than afforded by analog waveforms, opening up possibilities for new ways to characterize the vertical structure of the Earth’s surface (Ref. 4).
Figure 23: Schematic view of the ATLAS measurement concept (image credit: NASA) 50)
Legend to Figure 23: Single laser pulse, split into 6 beams. Redundant lasers, redundant detectors.
ATLAS carries two lasers on the optical bench – one primary and one backup. The laser light is at 532 nm, a bright green on the visible spectrum. It is fast-firing, sending 10,000 laser light pulses per second. 51)
The first step on the laser’s path to the ground is just a few inches past the laser, where a fold mirror directs the light 90º around a corner, where it hits the first key component, the PBC (Polarizing Beam Combiner). The PBC has two functions: The first is to make sure that the primary and backup lasers head down the same path. Although the two lasers won’t fire at the same time, the laser beams begin at different positions and need to end up at the same place. The second function is to use a periscope to pick off a fraction of the laser light and direct it to the LSA (Laser Sampling Assembly).
At the LSA, one of these fibers starts the ’stopwatch’ for that photon pulse. This timing component has to be incredibly precise to get the measurements that scientists need – when a photon returns, its travel time is recorded to the billionth of a second. The LSA also uses the small fraction of the laser to measure the laser’s wavelength, ensuring it remains precisely at 532.272 nm. This specific shade of bright green is what the filters on the receiving telescope let pass through to stop the stopwatch, once the laser pulse completes its journey. Any other wavelength gets filtered out as background noise. As the LSA starts the timer, the rest of the laser pulse continues to the BE (Beam Expander).
Shaping and steering the beam: The BE consists of two mirrors, facing each other but slightly angled so that the laser hits one, bounces across to the second one, and then continues on in the same direction. These mirrors are curved to make the laser beam more than four times wider once it bounces off them. Making the beam wider actually makes the photons diverge less as they travel to Earth, tightening the laser footprint on the ground and allowing for a more precise map of surface heights.
"The spot diameter on Earth’s surface would have been 66 m, now it’s 15 m," according to Ramos-Izquierdo. "By making the laser beam bigger in diameter before exiting the instrument, we actually decrease how much it spreads as it propagates downward through the atmosphere."
The wider laser beam now goes through the BSM (Beam Steering Mechanism), which directs the laser at the ground below, but also has fine control over where the laser is pointing. This mechanism is connected with components on the instrument's telescope receiver, which collects any photons that return. The goal is to automatically point the lasers at the exact spot on the ground, where the telescope is observing. If the telescope and laser are pointed at different spots, the BSM will make slight adjustments to correct the alignment. The BSM is key because as the satellite goes in and out of the sun, changes in temperature could slightly warp the optical bench.
Split in six: The last hurdle for the laser beam is the DOE (Diffractive Optic Element), on the far side of the beam steering mechanism. This optical component is etched with a microscopic pattern of crisscrossed lines, which splits the single laser beam into six. The beams are set at slightly different angles, so they will cover the ground in a specific formation of three pairs of beams.
Once through the Diffractive Optic Element, the photons – lined up perfectly in six beams – are off on their journey to Earth.
Figure 24: ICESat-1 observation spacing at Jakobshavn Isbræ (left) and planned ICESat-2 spacing overlay (right), (image credit: NASA, Ref. 6)
Legend to Figure 25: It is important to note that the integrated photon-counting sample (“histogram”) looks like the analog wave - but it is not - the information content is different, and the method of analyzing the data is different.
Figure 26: Overview of the ATLAS instrument (image credit: NASA)
Table 4: Current laser transmitter performance requirements for the ICESat-2 micropulse laser altimeter system
Laser transmitter: The ATLAS laser represents a significant jump in space qualified laser technology (short pulse width, moderate average powers, frequency tunable and laser shot count). The ATLAS instrument is required to run continuously for 3 years on-orbit and the required laser shot count (~1 trillion) is ~3 orders of magnitude greater than in any previous NASA spaceflight mission. 52)
Fibertek Inc of Herndon, VA delivered three laser transmitters, including the one shown in Figure 27, that meet the demanding performance and reliability requirements for the ATLAS instrument, including two flight units and one spare. The lasers consists of two major sub-assemblies. The LOM (Laser Optical Module) is a sealed and pressurized module housing all of the optical components and laser diode modules. The LEM (Laser Electronics Module) is integrated to the LOM and is a vented module housing the laser power and command and control electronics.
LOM (Laser Optical Module): A mature diode pumped solid Master Oscillator Power Amplifier (MOPA) architecture was selected in order to minimize schedule, cost and technical risks. End-pumped crystals gain heads are used in the oscillator and three subsequent amplifiers. The end-pumped gain heads are designed with methodology similar to mature geometries used broadly in commercial laser systems.
The master oscillator generates 200 µJ infrared pulses with <1.5 ns full width half max pulse widths with narrow (< 5 pm) linewidth tunable over a >50 pm wavelength range. The oscillator’s output is amplified via three stages to more than 1.8 mJ at 10 kHz pulse repetition frequency while preserving the near diffraction-limited beam quality (M2 < 1.4) and short pulse widths of the oscillator output. The 1064 nm amplifier output is frequency doubled to 532 nm via a critically phased matched lithium triborate (LBO) crystal.
The ATLAS lasers generate 532 nm output pulses with user-selectable energies from 250 µJ to 1.2 mJ with near-diffraction limited beam quality and < 1.5 ns pulse widths. Additional system design details have been previously published.
The ATLAS lasers systems successfully completed a protoflight qualification program including electromagnetic interference testing, vibration testing and thermal vacuum testing, specific testing details are published . In addition, three early system prototypes completed >25,000 hour life tests demonstrating the laser design was capable of meeting the mission operational run time requirement. A summary of the key laser requirements and achieved performance is listed in Table 5.
LEM (Laser Electronics Module): The electronic design was started early in the program mitigating design surprises and long lead Electrical, Electronic and Electromechanical (EEE) part procurement schedules. The integrated ATLAS electronics included the following major electronic boards.
Laser Control Board: Provides high speed communications with the payload, to monitor numerous laser health and diagnostic sensors (14 temperature sensors, four internal energy monitors, two pressure sensors, other housekeeping telemetry) while providing the critical timing parameters needed for a laser capable of 12 user selectable energy modes.
Diode Power Module: A custom high efficiency (>87%) DC-DC converter purpose built to provide power conditioning to four custom pulsed diode drivers.
Pulsed Diode Driver: Four pulsed diode drivers generating the programmable current waveforms with a peak current of 4 A, ~28 VDC at 10 kHz with µs class rise and fall times, and 85% efficiency.
Figure 28: Block diagram of the ATLAS instrument (image credit: NASA)
Figure 29: ATLAS functional block diagram (image credit: NASA)
Figure 30: The ATLAS box structure, in preparation for its vibration tests at NASA/GSFC, which will ensure the box can withstand the jolts of launch (image credit: NASA, Ref. 48)
The ATLAS instrument has a mass of 298 kg and a power consumption of 300 W.
Just as with the original ICESat data, ICESat-2 measurements are expected to provide added value to science and applications beyond their primary purpose. NASA’s Applied Sciences Program actively seeks to connect NASA’s Earth-observing satellite data to societal applications and encourages each mission to come up with a plan to connect its science to user needs. To that end, the ICESat-2 mission established an ICESat-2 Applications Team to organize and develop a mission applications program that will help establish these vital links between ICESat-2 science and society.
With guidance from the Applications Team, ICESat-2 has developed and implemented a diverse range of mission-specific prelaunch applications activities and strategies for engaging end users. These activities are modeled after the highly successful application strategies implemented for NASA’s SMAP (Soil Moisture Active/Passive) mission and are intended to provide a fundamental understanding of how ICESat-2’s data products can be best integrated into operational procedures to improve decision-making efforts across multiple disciplines. 53)
Figure 31: Overview of ICESat-2 elements in the ground segment (image credit: NASA)
Table 6: ICESat-2 science data products. The rows are shaded light gray to dark gray to represent Level 0 (light gray), Level 1, Level 2, and Level 3 (dark gray) data products. The ICEsat-2 mission will not have a Level 4 (value-added-model) product.
ICESat-2 Preparatory Campaigns
NASA Operation IceBridge Campaign in Antarctica 2018
• October 23, 2018: Operation IceBridge, NASA’s longest-running aerial survey of polar ice, flew over the northern Antarctic Peninsula on Oct. 16, 2018. During the survey, designed to assess changes in the ice height of several glaciers draining into the Larsen A, B and C embayments, IceBridge senior support scientist Jeremy Harbeck spotted a very sharp-angled, tabular iceberg floating among sea ice just off of the Larsen C ice shelf. A photo of the iceberg (seen at right) was widely shared after it was posted on social media. 54)
Figure 32: Two rectangular Icebergs spotted on NASA IceBridge flight (image credit: NASA/Jeremy Harbeck)
“I thought it was pretty interesting; I often see icebergs with relatively straight edges, but I've not really seen one before with two corners at such right angles like this one had,” Harbeck said. The rectangular iceberg appeared to be freshly calved from Larsen C, which in July 2017 released the massive A68 iceberg, a chunk of ice about the size of the state of Delaware.
• October 12, 2018: NASA’s decade-long airborne survey of polar ice, Operation IceBridge, is once again probing Antarctica. But this year is different: it is the first time that the IceBridge team and instruments survey the frozen continent while NASA’s newest satellite mission, the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2), studies it from space. 55)
After successfully flying over the Bailey Ice Stream and Slessor Glacier in East Antarctica on 10 October, IceBridge will spend the next five weeks measuring changes in Antarctic sea and land ice while precisely flying under orbits of ICESat-2 to compare measurements.
Figure 33: An icefall along the edge of Bailey Ice Stream in East Antarctica, as seen during an Operation IceBridge flight on 10 October 2018 (image credit: NASA/Jeremy Harbeck)
IceBridge began flying in 2009 to maintain continuity of laser-altimetry measurements between NASA’s ICESat missions. The original ICESat mission ended in 2009, and its successor, ICESat-2, was launched on 15 September 2018. Since then, ICESat-2 has successfully collected its first height measurements across the Antarctic Ice Sheet on 3 October.
“After a decade of flying both poles every year, we’re finally bridging the two ICESat satellite missions,” said Joe MacGregor, IceBridge’s project scientist and a glaciologist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “It’s hugely satisfying to be part of building this key observational record of change in the polar regions.”
“This campaign is our second-to-last Antarctic campaign and it is arguably the most scientifically diverse that IceBridge has ever done,” MacGregor said. “We’re going to be revisiting classic IceBridge targets: flights along glacier flowlines that have been surveyed since 2002, long-term sea ice flights, and new targets across West Antarctica. More than two dozen of these mission designs are relevant to both IceBridge and ICESat-2.”
IceBridge and ICESat-2 both use laser altimeters that fire pulses of light toward the ground and measure how long it takes for that light to bounce off the ice and return to the instruments’ sensors. Scientists can then calculate the distance between the aircraft or the satellite and the ice surface, which gives them the ice height.
When IceBridge flies along a track over Antarctica that ICESat-2 has either just or is about to pass over as it orbits in space, pilots will align the plane so that the swath fired by IceBridge’s laser altimeter encompasses the tracks of two of ICESat-2’s six laser beams. Researchers will then look for overlap between the IceBridge and ICESat-2 returns and compare their measurements of ice height.
Figure 34: IceBridge’s ATM (Airborne Topographic Mapper) instrument has two lasers that shoot thousands of pulses of light per second in a circular motion that, combined with the plane’s forward motion, result in spiral patterns of height measurements over Earth’s surface. At the altitude that IceBridge typically conducts polar surveys, the lasers’ swaths are 650 feet (~ 200 m) and 130 feet wide (40 m), respectively. Each single measurement, or laser pulse, for either instrument has a 1m footprint on the ground. In contrast, ICESat-2 takes measurements following six unique lines on the ground, one for each of its laser beams. The footprint of each ICESat-2 laser pulse is about 56 feet (17 m) in diameter (image credit: NASA/Kelly Brunt, Adriana Manrique)
During this year’s Antarctic campaign, the IceBridge team will fly under some of ICESat-2’s orbits over sea and land ice. The underflights over sea ice to collect measurements of freeboard — the total height of the snow cover and sea ice that floats above the ocean — are particularly tricky. The ice that floats over the Southern Ocean is in constant motion, so in order to survey the same patches of sea ice that ICESat-2 will have flown over a few hours earlier or later that day, the IceBridge scientists will first have to figure out where that sea ice has drifted.
“We’re going to be chasing sea ice,” said Linette Boisvert, IceBridge’s deputy project scientist and a sea ice researcher at Goddard. “To do so, we will take the plane down to a lower altitude and remain there for a few seconds to measure wind speed and direction. We’ll plug these data into a code that accounts for drift and other forces, calculating where the sea ice that ICESat-2 flew over is currently located. Then, we’ll adjust our route to fly over it. On the way back to base, we’ll drop lower again to measure wind speed, readjust our trajectory and chase sea ice again.”
Figure 35: A coastal polynya, or opening in the sea ice cover, near the Filchner Ice Shelf in Antarctica, as seen during an Operation IceBridge flight on 10 October 2018 (image credit: NASA/John Sonntag)
Another modification to meet ICESat-2’s needs will be performing a sea ice survey at twilight. Normally, IceBridge only conducts its flights in broad daylight, but, since ICESat-2 will be taking measurements around the clock, the scientists want to check whether laser data are more accurate at low light, when there is less interference on the laser instrument’s sensors from the Sun.
While flying over Antarctica, IceBridge will also collaborate with satellite missions and international research groups as weather and time allow. During the sea ice surveys, the IceBridge plane may also fly under the tracks of ESA’s (European Space Agency) CryoSat-2 and the European Union’s Sentinel-3 satellites. During a survey flight over Thwaites Glacier, one of the fastest-changing glaciers in West Antarctica, IceBridge may collect seafloor measurements to support the International Thwaites Glacier Collaboration, a joint campaign between the United States and the United Kingdom.
This year, IceBridge flights to Antarctica will begin first from Punta Arenas, in southern Chile, and later from Ushuaia, in southern Argentina. The surveys will be conducted from NASA’s DC-8 airborne science laboratory. The plane, managed by NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center in Palmdale, California, carries IceBridge’s full instrument suite.
IceBridge’s main instrument is a dual-color laser altimeter from NASA's Wallops Flight Facility in Virginia that measures surface elevation by transmitting both infrared and green laser pulses. The airborne mission also uses two types of radar systems from the Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets at the University of Kansas to study ice layers and Antarctica’s bedrock. Wallops also contributes a high-resolution camera to collect color images of the ice surface and infrared cameras to read surface temperatures of sea and land ice. Goddard provides a hyperspectral imager to the mission that takes measurements over hundreds of wavelengths and Columbia University in New York manages a gravimeter to map the seafloor underneath the ice shelves.
Figure 36: The Shackleton Range in Antarctica at sunset with snow blowing off the ridges, photographed during an Operation IceBridge flight on 10 October 2018 (image credits: NASA/Michael Studinger)
MABEL (Multiple Altimeter Beam Experimental Lidar)
MABEL is a high-altitude airborne laser altimeter designed as a simulator for ICESat-2. The MABEL design uses multiple beams at fixed angles and allows for local slope determination. The MABEL instrument was developed to: 56) 57)
1) enable the development of ICESat-2 geophysical algorithms prior to launch
2) provide detailed error analysis of the ATLAS measurement strategy
3) provide ATLAS model validation.
MABEL is a photon-counting multibeam lidar sampling at both 532 nm and 1064 nm wavelengths using short (~1.5 ns) laser pulses. MABEL beams are arranged in a linear array, perpendicular to the direction of flight. The system allows for beam-geometry changes between flights with a maximum view angle of ±1 km from a 20 km nominal altitude achieved during the 2010–2012 deployments using a NASA ER-2 aircraft (Figure 37).
Figure 37: Schematic ICESat-2 and MABEL beam geometry (dashed lines) and reference ground tracks (grey lines along icesheet surface). ICESat-2 beam pairs (separated by ~90 m) do not have the same energy in order to keep the required laser energy low; therefore, each beam pair consists of a strong and a weak beam (as indicated by the dash difference). MABEL allows for beamgeometry changes with a maximum ground spacing of ~2 km at 20 km. However, for the 2014 AK deployment, the maximum ground spacing was 0.2 km (Ref. 57), image credit: MABEL Team
The repetition rate of MABEL is variable (between 5 and 25 kHz); most flights during the 2010–2012 deployments used 5 kHz. At this nominal altitude, repetition rate, and an aircraft speed of ~200 m/s, MABEL samples a ~2 m footprint every ~4 cm along track. During these initial MABEL deployments, beam geometry (specifically the spacing between the individual beams) was configured to mimic ICESat-2.
Following engineering test flights in December 2010 and March 2011, MABEL was deployed to Greenland in April 2012 to collect data over polar targets (Figure 38).
Operation IceBridge is a NASA airborne campaign intended to bridge the data gap between ICESat and ICESat-2. Operation IceBridge hosts a suite of instruments, including the ATM (Airborne Topographic Mapper). ATM is a lidar that conically scans at a rate of 20 Hz, with an off-nadir scanning angle of ~15º. Like GLAS, ATM digitizes returned energy as a waveform with derived surface elevations based on 532 nm wavelength pulses and a 5 kHz PRF (Pulse Repetition Frequency). The ATM flights were conducted using the NASA P-3B at an aircraft speed of ~100 m/s, with a nominal elevation of 500 m above ground level. At this air speed, elevation, and repetition frequency, ATM generates a 1 m footprint and a scanning swath width of ~250 m.
Logistics and cloud-free weather allowed for coordinated surveys between ATM and MABEL over the Greenland Ice Sheet (Figure 38). Here, the MABEL multibeam determination of the ice-sheet surface is presented and compared with that determined by ATM, including local slope assessments. These comparisons are made with consideration for the ICESat-2 planned beam geometry and relative signal strength.
Both MABEL and ATM simultaneously surveyed a 150 km “Southern Traverse” of the Greenland Ice Sheet on April 20, 2012 (Figure 38). Additionally, MABEL made three passes over a 50 km stretch of ICESat track 0412 in the vicinity of Summit Station, Greenland, on April 8, 2012. ATM made a pass of the same ground segment on April 11, 2012. This ground segment has been used as a calibration site for ICESat-2.
Figure 38: Location map of the 50 km along-track Summit Area site and the 150 km along-track Southern Traverse site on the MODIS Mosaic of Greenland. (Inset) Operation IceBridge P-3B captured in the NASA ER-2 Cirrus Digital Camera System at the black.
The NASA IceBridge ATM Level-2 Icessn Elevation, Slope, and Roughness (ILATM2) for April 11 and 20, 2012, were obtained from the National Snow and Ice Data Center (NSIDC). This is a resampled and smoothed elevation data set that provides four across-track elevations per timestamp every ~35 m along-track, which allowed for the trivial calculation of across-track slope. The total across-track span for this data set, for the flights used in this analysis, was approximately 150 m.
MABEL data (release 8) for April 8 and 20, 2012, were obtained from the NASA ICESat-2 website. Each data file contains 1 minute of data for every available beam. The data files contain photon arrival times resulting from reflected laser light (i.e., signal photons) and background photons due to sunlight (i.e., noise photons).
In order to discriminate coarse signal photons from noise photons and derive ice-sheet surface elevation, the team developed an algorithm based on histograms of the photon data. Evolving from techniques applied to other photon-counting lidars, such as the SIMPL (Slope Imaging Multi-polarization Photon-counting Lidar), a 0.125 s (~25 m; 625 shots) along-track segments of data was generated and the photon data at 10 m vertical resolution was histogrammed. Signal photons in four sequential steps were identified.
For direct comparison of the surveys, ATM tracks and MABEL beams were chosen to most closely mimic the 90 m spacing of the ICESat-2 beam geometry. ATM tracks 2 and 3 were used for this analysis because they have ground separation of ~85 m. Elevations from tracks 2 and 3 from the same along-track time were then used to calculate the ATM across-track slope. MABEL beam 6 (center of the array) and beam 5 (~85 m ground spacing from the center of the array) were chosen for analysis as they have an across-track ground separation similar to the ATM tracks used. To determine the MABEL across-track slope, signal photons from beams 5 and 6 were interpolated along track to a common time so that, similar to ATM, an across-track slope could be then calculated for each increment of along-track time. The across-track slopes for both ATM and MABEL were then compared.
MABEL beams have variable signal strengths; however, beams 5 and 6 are the most similar to the expected radiometry of the strong beams of ATLAS. The along-track data density differed within and between flights based on variables that affect reflectivity, including weather conditions, time of day, and sun-incidence angle. For the data used in this analysis, the full-rate along-track data density average for both beams was always greater than 4 signal photons/m. For the Southern Traverse flight, the along-track data densities were 3.4 and 3.9 signal photons per 70 cm for beams 5 and 6, respectively. For the Summit Area flight, data densities were 3.1 and 3.4 signal photons per 70 cm for beams 5 and 6, respectively.
A strong-beam/weak-beam pair will be used for ICESat-2 slope determination; the energy associated with the weak beam will be reduced by a factor of 4. Therefore, the expected number of signal photons per laser shot (every 70 cm along track) between the strong beam and the weak beam will also differ by a factor of 4. The current best estimates of expected signal photons per laser shot vary with season and surface type. Based on ICESat-2 engineering models, under similar conditions as the 2012 MABEL survey, the team expects ICESat-2 to record 8.5 and 2.1 signal photons every shot (or 70 cm along track) for the strong and weak beams, respectively. Thus, the MABEL full-rate data used in this analysis suggest data densities of 46% of the expected ICESat-2 data densities. MABEL engineers are currently working to increase signal strength to achieve the expected ICESat-2 data densities, which will facilitate more direct MABEL to ATLAS comparisons.
To further assess accurate ground characterization given the ICESat-2 planned configuration, all photons associated with one of the MABEL beams (beam 5) were subsampled by a factor of 4 and then reprocessed through the ground-finding algorithm, to simulate the expected radiometric relationship between the ATLAS strong and weak beams. After subsampling, the data densities were 0.9 and 0.8 signal photons per 70 cm for the Southern Traverse and Summit Area, respectively. To determine the MABEL across-track slope, the ground-signal photons from beam 6 and the subsampled ground-signal photons from beam 5 were again interpolated to a common time so that an across-track slope could be calculated as described above. Therefore, the beam with the fewest along-track samples (the weak beam, 5) limited the total number of samples that was used in the slope determination.
Antarctic Preparatory Campaign
In temperatures that can drop below -20º Fahrenheit (-29ºC), along a route occasionally blocked by wind-driven ice dunes, a hundred miles from any other people, a team led by two NASA scientists will survey an unexplored stretch of Antarctic ice. 58)
They’re packing extreme cold-weather gear and scientific instruments onto sleds pulled by two tank-like snow machines called PistenBullys, and on 21 Dec. 2017, they will begin their two- to three-week traverse in an arc around the South Pole.
The 470-mile (759 km) expedition in one of the most barren landscapes on Earth will ultimately provide the best assessment of the accuracy of data collected from space by ICESat-2 (Ice Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2), set to launch in 2018. With a fast-firing laser instrument, ICESat-2 will measure the elevation of ice sheets and track change over time. Even small amounts of melt across areas as vast as Greenland or Antarctica can result in large amounts of meltwater contributing to sea level rise.
To help document this, ICESat-2's height change measurements will have a precision of less < 2.5 cm – ground-truthed, in part, with efforts like this Antarctic campaign. The team will collect precise GPS data of the elevation at 88 degrees south, where ICESat-2’s orbits converge, providing thousands of points where the survey measurements can be compared to satellite data.
“This traverse provides an extremely challenging and extremely cold way to assess the accuracy of the data,” said Kelly Brunt, ICESat-2’s calibration and validation lead at NASA/GSFC (Goddard Space Flight Center), and a research scientist at the University of Maryland. “ICESat-2’s datasets are going to tell us incredible things about how Earth’s ice is changing, and what that means for things like sea level rise.”
Brunt is leading the four-person campaign from the South Pole, along with ICESat-2’s deputy project scientist Tom Neumann. The NASA scientists will also be joined by a mechanic and a deep field mountaineer. The campaign to collect these key elevation measurements has been years in the making, with logistical help from the National Science Foundation’s U.S. Antarctic Program.
It will be a really cold road trip, Brunt said. They’ll wake up, make coffee (with beans, grounds and pour-over equipment chosen and packed with great care), turn on the snow machines and instruments, and start the day’s drive. The two PistenBullys will each tow a thick plastic sled, about 8 feet wide and 60 feet long. The sleds – kind of like extra-large Flexible Flyers, Neumann noted – will carry tents as well as food, equipment and extra fuel.
The whole trek is about 750 km. The team will leave the South Pole along an established traverse line between the southernmost station and McMurdo. Just after they reach 88º south, they will turn and follow the latitude line for about 186 miles. Then, they’ll turn back to the pole – creating a route like a misshapen piece of pie. At a pace of 50 to 72 km/day, it will take at least a couple weeks to complete.
“There’ll be times when it’s quiet and thoughtful, and there are going to be other times when you’re steering around the sastrugi – the sand dunes of the ice – when you’re not going to make a lot of kilometers on that day, but they’ll be hard fought,” Kelly Brunt said.
Figure 39: The ICESat-2 team will follow a route from the South Pole station to just north of the 88º south latitude line, then drive along the line at a pace of 50 to 72 km/day. The traverse will take two to three weeks to complete (image credit: NASA, Manrique)
Crevasses are highly unlikely in this thick, slow-moving region of the Antarctic ice sheet, she said. The campaign’s deep field mountaineer will operate a ground penetrating radar that sticks out on a boom in front of the lead vehicle, looking for any gaps in the ice, but the primary safety concerns will be exposure to outside temperatures (-30ºC) and the altitude (about 3 km at South Pole).
The first few days at the South Pole station will be spent acclimatizing to the altitude, Neumann said, noting that the cold, dry air makes the environment even harsher. Once on the road, however, he plans to spend evenings out in the elements, digging holes.
“I’ll measure the density of the snow along the way,” he said. By shoveling out a three-foot-deep pit, he can see layers of snow that have built up over decades, some of which can be hard to dig past. “They’re not super dense, but they’re so old the grains of snow are bonded together like its cement.”
Figure 40: The traverse follows close to the 88 degree south line, where all the orbits will converge, as seen in this visualization. This allows scientists to compare thousands of survey measurements with data collected by ICESat-2 once it is in orbit (image credit: NASA's Scientific Visualization Studio)
When ICESat-2 starts collecting elevation data, the snow density measurements and the data from the ground penetrating radar will help determine how much mass is lost when the ice sheet drops in elevation.
The 88-degree traverse is also an opportunity for Brunt and Neumann to play the odds. At three different sites along the route, they’ll set up a grid of nine reflector cubes, each no bigger than the tip of a pinkie finger. They’ll mark the precise latitude, longitude, and elevation of each cube.
Then, once ICESat-2 is up and running, they’ll wait. If one of the satellite’s six laser beams hits a cube, the mirrored material of the cube will reflect the laser light back at a much higher than normal intensity. Since they’ll know the exact location and elevation of the cube, they can check the accuracy of the satellite data even more precisely than with the traverse data.
“If you hit that tiny little point, you’ll know exactly where the laser hit on the ground,” Brunt said. “But hitting that point is both aiming and luck. It’s hard. But, by placing them at 88 degrees, where you have so many orbits crossing and so much data, it’s just a statistics game.”
After the traverse, the scientists will return to the United States, retracing their steps from the South Pole station, to McMurdo Station, to New Zealand and home. With them: hard drives full of data to help understand the accuracy of ICESat-2.
Figure 41: Kelly and Tom on the ice runway at McMurdo Station, Antarctica (image credit: Tom Neumann) 59)
Figure 42: Tom and Kelly inside a PistenBully, like the one they’ll use for the traverse along 88 degrees south (image credit: Kelly Brunt)
NASA Operation IceBridge Campaign in Antarctica 2017
This campaign is intended to be flown by NASA's P-3 aircraft, beginning in late October and ending in late November 2017. The mission, called Operation IceBridge, is in its ninth year of flights to map the snow and ice of Antarctica. The view from above provides a tremendous amount of information about the huge expanses of snow and ice around Earth’s polar regions and how they are changing. 60) 61)
Some flight lines are designed to map the ice laying atop the land, while others map the sea ice. On November 4, 2017, the IceBridge team flew its “Endurance West” mission, which specifically targets sea ice. The P3 crossed the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula, descended to a lower altitude, and then flew southward across the Weddell Sea. The path purposely follows a ground track of ICESat-2 —an ice-mapping satellite mission that is scheduled for launch in late 2018.
Figure 43: One of the mission’s instruments, the DMS (Digital Mapping System), collects thousands of high-resolution photographs during a single flight. These images shot from a camera mounted on the belly of the plane are “visual truth,” helping scientists identify features that are also detected by radar, laser, and gravity instruments (image credit: NASA Earth Observatory, map by Joshua Stevens)
Images from that day show just how varied sea ice can appear. The first photograph, shot from the aircraft by IceBridge project scientist Nathan Kurtz, shows newly formed sea ice next to a snow-covered floe in the Weddell Sea. The second and third images, both acquired by the DMS (Digital Mapping System), show sea ice off the Antarctic Peninsula. Thicker ice is white, thinner ice is gray, and open water is black or navy.
Note: Only a few images, marked in Figure 43, are provided here.
Figure 44: Newly formed sea ice (gray) in the Weddell Sea (image credit: NASA, Nathan Kurtz — image 1)
On November 12, 2017, IceBridge flew a high-priority mission over the Larsen C Ice Shelf. In July 2017, this region was significantly reshaped by the shedding of an iceberg the size of Delaware. For most of the four-hour survey, as the aircraft flew back-and-forth in parallel lines over the ice shelf, the landscape appeared flat and white. These new flight lines followed the ground tracks of the future ICESat-2, providing baseline measurements for the satellite to take over after it begins operations. This survey also increased the amount of Larsen C that has been observed with a gravimeter, an instrument that helps scientists map the bedrock below the ice shelf and the water, which radar and visual imagers cannot penetrate.
Visually, the landscape appeared more varied when the aircraft traced the edge of the ice shelf or soared over sea ice. These photographs show sea ice of various types as observed by the DMS during the November 12 flight.
Figure 45: Sea ice near the Larsen C Ice Shelf (image credit: NASA/Digital Mapping System — image 4)
Figure 46: Thin ice between the Larsen C Ice Shelf and iceberg A-68A (image credit: NASA/Digital Mapping System — image 5)
Fractures: During any given IceBridge flight, one can see areas of fractures and crevasses that attest to lumbering motion of huge slabs of ice. Its thickness on this part of the continent can vary dramatically, from no ice at all (barren bedrock) to more than a kilometer thick. The reason for the brittle appearance is similar to the phenomenon of river rapids, which become amplified as water flows through steep, narrow terrain. As ice flows through narrower areas and steeper bedrock, more fractures open up at the ice surface. But the flow of ice is so much slower than water, and fractures are often the only perceptible indication of movement. These images, acquired by the DMS on November 3, 2017, show cracks in the ice as observed while flying over the southern Antarctic Peninsula.
The image of Figure 47 shows a heavily crevassed glacier, about 13 miles long and 7 miles wide, flowing west from the Dyer Plateau to George VI Sound. The north side of this glacier merges with Meiklejohn Glacier.
Figure 48: Proposed flight lines of the NASA P-3B aircraft during the 2017 Antarctic Field Campaign of Operation IceBridge (image credit: NASA) 62)
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The information compiled and edited in this article was provided by Herbert J. Kramer from his documentation of: ”Observation of the Earth and Its Environment: Survey of Missions and Sensors” (Springer Verlag) as well as many other sources after the publication of the 4th edition in 2002. - Comments and corrections to this article are always welcome for further updates (firstname.lastname@example.org).