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How NASA's ICESat-2 will track ice changes in Antarctica, Greenland

Using advanced laser technology, scientists at NASA will track global changes in ice with greater accuracy.

Firing three pairs of laser beams 10,000 times per second, the ICESat-2 satellite will measure how long it takes for faint reflections to bounce back from ground and sea ice, allowing scientists to measure the thickness, elevation and extent of global ice

Leaving from Vandenberg Air Force base in California this coming Saturday, at 8:46 a.m. ET, the Ice, Cloud, and Land Elevation Satellite-2 — or, the "ICESat-2" — is perched atop a United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket, and when it assumes its orbit, it will study ice layers at Earth's poles, using its only payload, the Advance Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS).


The device will fire one laser split into six green beams, at 10,000 pulses each second. These pulses of light contain trillions of photons; just about a dozen will make it back to the satellite, but of those that do, it will measure how long it took for them to return to the satellite after bouncing off of ice, landscape, trees, etc.

These measurements will be taken every 28 inches (71 cm), which will return an incredible amount of data as it studies the world. For example, it will be able to track ice changes annually in the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets, within 4 mm (0.16 inches).

Image from NASA/Goddard video

The overarching goal here is to measure ice levels as they ebb and flow, especially at Earth's coldest regions. That will then provide unprecedented data for those studying climate change and its impact across the world. The first iteration, ICESat-I, used a single laser, the Geoscience Laser Altimeter System, and it fired them at 40 pulses per second — 250 times slower than the new model. Data from a follow-up study using aircraft, known as IceBridge, as well as that from ICESat-I, will be used as comparisons to what ICESat-2 gathers.

Indeed, the accuracy is the thing that's really powerful here. A press release about ICESat-2 gave a good indication of how much more precise this one is than its predeccesor:

As a comparison, if the two instruments [ICESat-I and II] took measurements over a football field, GLAS would have collected data points outside the two end zones, but ICESat-2's ATLAS would take measurements between each yard line.

As to the technology involved, even some of the people who worked on it are shocked at its capability; Thorsten Markus, the mission's project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, declared: “I'm a physicist, and I'm still shocked it works."

Here are 10 quick facts about this mission that explain it quite well:

Remote learning vs. online instruction: How COVID-19 woke America up to the difference

Educators and administrators must build new supports for faculty and student success in a world where the classroom might become virtual in the blink of an eye.

Credit: Shutterstock
Sponsored by Charles Koch Foundation
  • If you or someone you know is attending school remotely, you are more than likely learning through emergency remote instruction, which is not the same as online learning, write Rich DeMillo and Steve Harmon.
  • Education institutions must properly define and understand the difference between a course that is designed from inception to be taught in an online format and a course that has been rapidly converted to be offered to remote students.
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Octopus-like creatures inhabit Jupiter’s moon, claims space scientist

A leading British space scientist thinks there is life under the ice sheets of Europa.

Jupiter's moon Europa has a huge ocean beneath its sheets of ice.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/SETI Institute
Surprising Science
  • A British scientist named Professor Monica Grady recently came out in support of extraterrestrial life on Europa.
  • Europa, the sixth largest moon in the solar system, may have favorable conditions for life under its miles of ice.
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White dwarfs hold key to life in the universe, suggests study

New study shows white dwarf stars create an essential component of life.

White dwarfs.

NASA and H. Richer (University of British Columbia)
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"Forced empathy" is a powerful negotiation tool. Here's how to do it.

Master negotiator Chris Voss breaks down how to get what you want during negotiations.

Juan Carlos Correa (L) , a prospective home buyer is shown a short sale home by Denise Madan, a Real Estate agent with Re/Max, as he shops for a house on April 22, 2014 in Coral Gables, Florida.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Personal Growth
  • Former FBI negotiator Chris Voss explains how forced empathy is a powerful negotiating tactic.
  • The key is starting a sentence with "What" or "How," causing the other person to look at the situation through your eyes.
  • What appears to signal weakness is turned into a strength when using this tactic.
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