Since 2003 NASA has used a satellite, ICESat (Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite), for observing polar ice. ICESat was retired in February 2010 due to a technical malfunction, leaving NASA without a satellite dedicated to ice observance. A new satellite is not expected to be launched until 2016. NASA therefore introduced the IceBridge program which utilizes an aircraft to make similar measurements.
IceBridge flights began in October 2009 using a DC-8. Beginning in 2010, the DC-8 was joined by a P-3 Orion and other aircraft such as a King Air B-200, Gulfstream G-V and Guardian Falcon.
There are trade offs to using an aircraft instead of a satellite. One drawback is that a satellite can observe a far wider area. Also, satellites take measurements full time, while IceBridge aircraft measurements are limited to annual campaigns that are several weeks long. Aircraft, however, have the advantages of being able to carry more instruments and target and focus on scientifically interesting areas instead of just flying a fixed path. Also, certain instruments such as ice-penetrating radar only work from the lower altitudes afforded by aircraft like the P-3 Orion and DC-8
The project, headed by Michael Studinger from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, uses a suite of airborne science instruments to get a three-dimensional view of Arctic and Antarctic ice.] The mission’s goals are to monitor changes in polar ice, gather data for predictive models of ice and sea-level rise and bridge the gap in measurements between NASA’s ICESat and ICESat-2 satellites. IceBridge achieves this by collecting data from specific glaciers. Pine Island Glacier is one such area of focus. There, Operation IceBridge has been observing the underside of the ice-sheet using an advanced radar, as well as closely monitoring an area of Pine Island Glacier, known as the ice tongue, that, were it to melt, would allow a large portion of the glacier to slide into the Amundsen Sea.