A satellite designed to measure the elevation of ice coverage on Earth including ice sheet, sea ice and glacier elevation is heading into the next round of rigorous testing about a year before its scheduled launch. All of NASA’s sophisticated instruments must be tested multiple times before heading to space to ensure that once they arrive there they’ll be able to withstand the cold temperatures and harsh radiation.

atlas instrument This is the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System instrument that will be attached to the ICESat-2. Photo: NASA

The lasers on the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2, called ICESat-2 for short, are currently going through testing in Maryland at the Goddard Space Flight Center. The lasers on the craft are key to its functionality once it launches. The system they’re a part of, the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System, is what will make the elevation measurements from the sky.

The lasers are designed to send pulses down to the surface of the Earth where they will encounter ice and then the ATLAS will measure the amount of time it takes for the photons from that laser to return to it. The craft will expel 10,000 laser pulses per second resulting in detailed mapping of ice and glaciers worldwide that is more detailed than any other measurements taken.

This will result in important information for climate scientists on how much the icy parts of the world are changing and possible even why and how. While the craft is intended to be used for the ice measurements it will also be used to measure tropical regions as well to track the changes happening there as well.

Before ICESat-2 can get to work measuring the Earth’s cryosphere researchers and engineers are putting it through its paces. The craft first underwent testing during the spring and summer of last year. It was put on a vibration table and through high levels of sound to test it for the launch conditions it would face. It was also exposed to extreme how and cold like it would go through in space. Following that successful testing it was sent to Arizona to join with the craft it would be traveling on. Once the two were attached more testing was done and it revealed that the instruments worked just as well when attached to the craft as they did when off of it, a good sign.

After that testing the instrument was sent back to Goddard and it arrived just a few weeks ago ready for more testing, the flight lasers will be installed and it will be checked for any damaged caused by the transport from Arizona. There is still more testing to go but the instrument and the craft are well on their way to being joined and launched to provide new insights into the cryosphere.