NASA scientists turn towards Earth to measure polar ice and climate change conditions

This is actually some of the real science that's been fueling the global warming and client change debates.
Written by David Gewirtz, Senior Contributing Editor on

When most Americans think about NASA, they assume the agency is all about rockets and space exploration. While that's certainly part of the NASA mission, NASA also does a considerable amount of Earth science, researching aspects of immediate importance to humans much closer to home.

Take, for example, the NASA IceBridge program. This is a program that's been running since 2009 and has been investigating the relationship between arctic ice and sea level. This is actually some of the real science that's been fueling the global warming and climate change debates.

NASA's ice measurement programs have used both satellites and aircraft. Prior to 2009, NASA did ice analysis using the Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite (ICESat). ICESat operated in a near-polar orbit at about 372 miles up.

It provided data from 2003 until 2009, when it suddenly stopped operating and engineers weren't able to remotely restart the measurement systems from the ground. Last summer, operators moved the satellite into a lower orbit and on August 30, it reentered Earth's atmosphere.

To take ICESat's place, NASA is planning to launch the ICESAT-2 bird, which was originally scheduled for launch in 2015 but has been pushed back to 2016.

In the meantime, the IceBridge program is using two aircraft -- one flying low, the other flying high -- to take ice depth measurements.

The first aircraft is a P-3B, a variation of the classic Lockheed P-3 Orion sea surveillance craft, used most notably for anti-submarine operations.

The P-3B will fly at lower altitude and use lasers to measure reflection from the ground back to the aircraft to gather data about how the surface elevation of the ice has changed.

Radar instruments, meanwhile, will look inside the ice, gathering measurement and ice characteristic data down to Earth's bedrock level.

Finally, also onboard the P-3B will be a gravity instrument which will be able to evaluate data from floating ice and gather data about how much water is filling underwater spaces in the ice.

NASA scientists will also be aboard a King Air B-200 aircraft. This is a much smaller Beechcraft-built twin-turboprop, best known for use by the United States Army for gathering military intelligence at fairly high altitudes.

For IceBridge, the B-200 will fly much higher than the P-3B and will gather data from much larger regions of ice.

All told, the agency expects IceBridge missions to run for ten weeks now, evaluating arctic conditions. In October, NASA will launch another series of missions to evaluate the level of ice in Antarctica.

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