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NASA Lasers Preview Advancing Summer Melt

Jul 14, 2014 12:06 PM EDT
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Arctic ice on record low

NASA will be taking a deep look at ice-melt near the polar Arctic in future summers, measuring thinning ice and snow-melt with pulses of green laser light.

According to the space agency, this first experiment will serve as a sneak peak of what's to come in 2017 following the launch of the Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESAT-2).

To preview ICESat-2-imaging of summer melts, NASA experts will be making high-altitude flights over Fairbanks Alaska with their friend MABEL.

The Multiple Altimeter Beam Experimental Lidar, or MABEL, collects data in the same way that ICESat-2's main instrument will - using laser pulses to measure the return rate of individual photons bouncing off the Earth's surface. The rate and pattern of photon return helps NASA experts determine a number of things, including the density and even texture of ice during melt season.

Thorsten Markus, an ICESat-2 project scientist, explained in a statement that the MABEL data will help acquire the last pieces to an algorithmic puzzle being fitted together by his team.

"All the algorithms need to be tested and in place by the time of launch. And one thing that was missing was ICESat-2-like data on the summer conditions," he explained.

"We have to design the algorithms to adapt to what we're learning this summer," senior researcher Ron Kwok added. "We don't have any preconceived notions as to what we might see, and that's why it's so important to fly MABEL."

According to Kwok, measuring the coverage of ice-water ponds is a main focus of this work, as it may indicate the extent of ice coverage by the end of summer and predict melt patterns in the approaching years. Currently NASA does not know how many ponds speckle the Arctic.

MABEL already took her first flight aboard NASA's high-altitude ER-2 aircraft this past weekend, and will continue to make daily passes over Alaska's glaciers, forests, lakes and Arctic waters until Aug. 1.

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