By Steve Brady
21st Space Wing Public Affairs Office
THULE AIR BASE, Greenland — NASA, the agency known for blasting into space, also has a mission going on much closer to the ground.
The space agency is wrapping up three weeks of operations at Thule Air Base, developing software for a satellite due to launch in 2017.
“We’re developing software that will ride on the ICESat-2,” said Kelly Brunt, assistant research scientist at the University of Maryland Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center. Brunt works directly with NASA on the project.
The original ICESat, short for Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite, operated from 2003 to 2009 measuring changes in the ice sheet through satellite measurements, specifically in Greenland, where the team measured the surface melt and calving rates of the ice sheet. Greenland, the third largest country in North America, is about 80 percent covered by the Greenland ice sheet. Those measurements will allow the researchers to quantify changes in the ice sheet and how it affects sea level. ICESat-2 will continue that research and will be launched into a polar orbit about 450 kilometers above the Earth.
Through the use of two King Air aircraft, the team is using LIDAR and a spectrometer to develop software for the satellite. LIDAR, which stands for light detection and ranging, uses lasers to measure variable distances to the Earth, while the spectrometer measures the wavelength of light from the surface. These measurements provide valuable data on the ice sheet, as well as develop the ICESat-2 software.
Operating from Thule is key to the research, given its proximity to the ice sheet covering much of the country. A team of 19 scientists, pilots, instrument operators and maintainers has used the base’s runway and a hangar as their launching point for the scientific mission. They fly for hours each day to gather measurements.
“It’s been fantastic, we’ve had amazing support from the community,” Brunt said. “Everything has gone smoothly across the board. The services available have been top-notch, from the food to the bowling alley — it’s been great here.”
While the ICESat-2 mission is complete, the NASA team will be back to Thule in the near future as part of IceBridge, a project to gather data terrestrially between the two satellite missions.