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Calibrating its own replacement

Nasa’s IceBridge mission is drawing to its close. Measurements made this autumn will help the satellite that replaces it get its bearings

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Operation IceBridge was never intended to be a permanent mission. The Nasa airborne ice survey began in 2009 as a stopgap measure to ensure that scientists could keep crunching ice data until the space agency could get ICESat-2, a satellite, aloft.

ICESat-2 is now slated to launch in 2018, meaning that, when all is said and done, IceBridge will have had a decade on the wing, monitoring ice over both poles. In the Arctic, its mission is generally flown April and May, when lengthening days make it possible to carry out multiple flights each day.

This year was different. For just the second time, an IceBridge crew headed north during the rapidly shortening days of autumn for a month-long mission that ended on October 23. (A second crew also headed south, as normal. See video at end of article.)

SEE RELATED: “Challenging development” dogs ICESat replacement

The Arctic mission had two goals. Firstly, to collect land and sea ice measurements close to the end of the melting season. Being able to compare autumn data with the data gathered in the spring, according to Nasa, gives scientists insight into how the melt season developed.

Typically, IceBridge data must be evaluated on a year-to-year basis. Taking measurements in the same year, according to Jackie Richter-Menge, an IceBridge scientist, makes it possible to see how ice varies within the same year.

Getting a mid-year measurement is also helpful, according to Eric Rignot, a Nasa glaciologist, because snow and ice properties differ at various times of the year.

In addition, taking ice measurements in the autumn, when there is less snow on ice floes, makes it easier to estimate thickness, an important parameter for indicating the health of sea ice.

SEE RELATED: It’s a satellite’s job, but someone’s got to do it

Secondly, the IceBridge crew gathered data that make sure the satellite that will put the mission out of business can be calibrated correctly.

During the autumn campaign, IceBridge flights retraced the exact paths flown this spring. In addition to allowing scientists to verify their ice-melt predictions, having same-year data will make it possible to verify the year-round measurements taken by ICESat-2 once it starts sending back information.

The data gathered this year can also be used by operators of CryoSat-2, a European satellite in orbit since 2010, to interpret its measurements and to test how well its observations

Even once ICESat-2 launches, it will not be a final farewell, to IceBridge. Nasa has funded the programme until 2019 giving the aerospace and the outer space systems a one-year overlap. That will further ensure that the ICESat-2 returns is up the standard set by its lower-flying predecessor.