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.
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:
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- This kind of microtargeting could be useful in cancer treatments.
- The microswimmers are biodegradable and easy to produce.
Metin Sitti and colleagues at the Max Planck Institute in Germany recently demonstrated that tiny drugs could be attached to individual algae cells and that those algae cells could then be directed through body-like fluid by a magnetic field.
The results were recently published in Advanced Materials, and the paper as a whole offers up a striking portrait of precision and usefulness, perhaps loosely comparable in overall quality to recent work done by The Yale Quantum Institute. It begins by noting that medicine has been attached to bacteria cells before, but bacteria can multiply and end up causing more harm than good.
A potential solution to the problem seems to have been found in an algal cell: the intended object of delivery is given a different electrical charge than the algal cell, which helps attach the object to the cell. The movement of the algae was then tested in 2D and 3D. (The study calls this cell a 'microswimmer.') It would later be found that "3D mean swimming speed of the algal microswimmers increased more than twofold compared to their 2D mean swimming speed." The study continues —
More interestingly, 3D mean swimming speed of the algal microswimmers in the presence of a uniform magnetic field in the x-direction was approximately threefolds higher than their 2D mean swimming speed.
After the 2D and 3D speed of the algal was examined, it was then tested in something made to approximate human fluid, including what they call 'human tubal fluid' (think of the fallopian tubes), plasma, and blood. They then moved to test the compatibility of the microswimmer with cervical cancer cells, ovarian cancer cells, and healthy cells. They found that the microswimmer didn't follow the path of bacteria cells and create something toxic.
The next logical steps from the study include testing this inside a living organism in order to assess the safety of the procedure. Potential future research could include examining how effective this method of drug delivery could be in targeting "diseases in deep body locations," as in, the reproductive and gastrointestinal tracts.
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