Europe is preparing to launch a satellite designed to test the prediction that climate change is causing the ice at the poles to thin.
Cryosat, which is slated to launch on 8 October, will spend three years in orbit, studying the polar caps, the BBC reports. The data it gathers should help scientists better understand how global warming will affect the planet's ice cover and sea levels.
The satellite will blast off from Russia's Plesetsk Cosmodrome, aboard an cold war relic: a modified intercontinental ballistic missile called Rockot, which is a SS-19 two-stage rocket fitted with a Breeze-KM third stage that will put the payload in its final orbit. The SS-19, which NATA called Stiletto, was first built two decades ago to serve as a weapon of nuclear war. You can read more about it here.
Once in orbit, the satellite will spend six months in a commissioning phase. Once it goes live, its radar altimeter will begin its survey of the floating sea ice at the poles. By measuring the height of the ice, and knowing its density, scientists will be able to calculate its mass.
The European SPace Agency already has two satellites (ERS-1 and ERS-2) looking at the arctic and antarctic ice sheets. However, the coverage they provide is limited, and doesn't extend to the outer edges of the ice sheets.
Researchers say that ERS-1 and 2 have proven the methods that Cryosat will employ do actually work. In combination with NASA's Icesat mission - which is measuring the land-based ice sheets of Antarctica and Greenland using a laser altimeter - the Cryosat data should give researchers the clearest picture yet of changes to polar ice cover. ®