Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Operation Ice Bridge will soon reach the end of its operational lifetime

A satellite launched by NASA in 2003 to keep an eye on the massive ice sheets that cover the Polar Regions will soon reach the end of its operational lifetime. A second satellite, dubbed ICESat-II, won’t launch until 2014 at the earliest.

That means a six-year gap for scientists who use the data collected by the satellite’s laser altimeter system to monitor such things as elevation changes in the ice. Researchers use that information to understand not only how the ice changes over time, but to help calculate the amount of sea level rise from ice lost to the ocean.But NASA has a backup plan to bridge the gap — the largest airborne survey of Earth’s polar ice ever flown.

Operation Ice Bridge is a six-year mission to fly an instrumented airplane out of Punta Arenas, Chile, across the ice and snow of West Antarctica and the Antarctic Peninsula. A modified DC-8 jetliner will crisscross ice shelves, sea ice, glaciers and the massive western ice sheet beginning this month.

Seelye Martin, chief scientist for the project from the University of Washington, said Ice Bridge is a partial replacement for ICESat, which stands for Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite. The DC-8 will carry precision instruments to map the ice topography just as ICESat did, allowing scientists to monitor elevation fluctuations in the ice sheet as well as changes in sea ice thickness.


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