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Mission Monday: ICESat and ICESat-2

Last week, we focused on NASA’s Operation IceBridge, an airborne mission that is bridging a gap in data between two satellite missions. Those missions, ICESat and ICESat-2, are key to our understanding of ice on Earth. As we’ve already learned, ice plays an important role in maintaining Earth’s climate. Because climate is a long-term phenomenon, it is vital that we have continuity in the data we collect about polar ice and atmospheric conditions.

ICESat (Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite) was launched in early 2003, with a life expectancy of three to five years. The goal of the mission was to help NASA better understand how the polar ice masses affect global sea level, as well as to collect data on clouds and aerosols to determine effects on atmospheric processes and climate change. Data on sea ice, land topography, and vegetation cover were gathered, and used to create maps, such as the one below, which shows movement in Greenland’s ice sheets from 2003 to 2007.

Credit: Hamish D. Pritchard, Robert J. Arthern, David G. Vaughn, and Laura A. Edwards, British Antarctic Survey and University of Bristol.

ICESat officially ended its mission in 2010, due to equipment failure, after having surpassed its original life expectancy. Operation IceBridge will bridge the gap in polar data until the launch of ICESat-2, which is scheduled for July 2016. ICESat-2 will continue to contribute important data on polar ice and exchanges between ice, ocean, and atmosphere. This continuity in data helps scientists create better predictive models for Earth’s climate and polar ice conditions, which in turn allows for better planning for changing conditions around the globe.

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