Space Lasers for the Home Planet

On September 15, 2018, the last Delta II rocket lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force base, in California. It carried into orbit IceSat-2 — a satellite equipped with perhaps the most sophisticated space laser ever built.
 
NASA didn’t put it up there to shoot down rogue asteroids. Instead, it’s taking aim — with exquisite precision — at Earth.
 
On this episode of Orbital Path, Dr. Michelle Thaller talks with Tom Wagner. He’s been looking forward to the launch of IceSat-2 for a decade. Officially, Wagner is NASA’s Program Scientist for the Cryosphere. That means he studies the frozen regions of the Earth: Antarctica. The Arctic Ocean. The glaciers of Greenland. All places critical to understanding our planet’s changing climate.
 
From 300 miles above, the six laser beams of IceSat-2 won’t harm even the most light-sensitive earthling, Wagner says. But, as he describes it, the satellite will allow scientists to precisely map the retreat of ice at the poles. And that promises to teach us a great deal about how Earth’s climate will change in the years to come.

Orbital Path is produced by David Schulman.
Our editor is Andrea Mustain. Production oversight by John Barth and Genevieve Sponsler.

Support for Orbital Path is provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, enhancing public understanding of science, technology, and economic performance.

Image credit: NASA