Wednesday, January 29, 2014

New NASA laser technology reveals how ice measures up

Science Daily: New results from NASA's MABEL campaign demonstrated that a photon-counting technique will allow researchers to track the melt or growth of Earth's frozen regions. When a high-altitude aircraft flew over the icy Arctic Ocean and the snow-covered terrain of Greenland in April 2012, it was the first polar test of a new laser-based technology to measure the height of Earth from space.

NASA's Multiple Altimeter Beam Experimental Lidar flew over Southwest Greenland's glaciers and sea ice to test a new method of measuring the height of Earth from space.

Aboard that aircraft flew the Multiple Altimeter Beam Experimental Lidar, or MABEL, which is an airborne test bed instrument for NASA's ICESat-2 satellite mission slated to launch in 2017. Both MABEL and ICESat-2's ATLAS instrument are photon counters -- they send out pulses of green laser light and time how long it takes individual light photons to bounce off Earth's surface and return. That time, along with ATLAS' exact position from an onboard GPS, will be plugged into computer programs to tell researchers the elevation of Earth's surface -- measuring change to as little as the width of a pencil.

This kind of photon-counting technology is novel for satellites; from 2003 to 2009, ICESat-1's instrument looked at the intensity of a returned laser signal, which included many photons. So getting individual photon data from MABEL helps scientists prepare for the vast amounts of elevation data they'll get from ICESat-2.

"Using the individual photons to measure surface elevation is a really new thing," said Ron Kwok, a senior research scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "It's never been done from orbiting satellites, and it hasn't really been done much with airborne instruments, either."...

I can see my house from here. Actually, it's an aerial shot of Greenland, shot by Túrelio, Wikimedia Commons, under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 2.5 Generic license

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