GLAS (the Geoscience Laser Altimeter System) is the first laser-ranging (lidar) instrument for continuous global observations of Earth. From aboard the Ice Cloud and Elevation Satellite (ICESat) spacecraft, it makes unique atmospheric observations, including measuring ice-sheet topography, cloud and atmospheric properties, and the height and thickness of radiatively important cloud layers needed for accurate short term climate and weather prediction.
The Lunar Orbiter Laser Altimeter (LOLA) will provide a precise global lunar topographic model and geodetic grid that will serve as the foundation of essential lunar understanding. This will aid future missions by providing topographical data for safe landings and enhance exploration-driven mobility on the Moon. LOLA will also contribute to decisions as to where to explore by looking at the evolution of the surface.
The Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) is an unmanned spacecraft designed to create a comprehensive atlas of the moon's physical features, radiation environment, temperatures, and resources. The mission places special emphasis on the moon's polar regions, where permanently shadowed craters may contain significant amounts of water ice that future human explorers might be able to exploit. LRO launched on June 18, 2009.
The Mars Orbiter Laser Altimeter (MOLA) is one of the major instruments that was part of the Mars Global Surveyor (MGS) spacecraft. MGS launched on November 7th, 1996 and traveled three-hundred-and-nine days to enter Mars' orbit on September 12, 1997.
MOLA studies the planet's geophysics, geology and atmospheric circulation in addition to acting as a passive radiometer (climate applications of satellite data). MOLA was able to make the most accurate global topographic map of any planet in the solar system. It also captured the seasonal variations in snow depth on the planet, its internal structure and pathways of past water flows and watersheds. MOLA's last data collection was on June 30th, 2001.
The MErcury Surface, Space ENvironment, GEochemistry and Ranging (MESSENGER) mission will advance understanding of Mercury and his history. MESSENGER will be the first spacecraft to achieve a stationary orbit around Mercury. It is also only the second mission, since Mariner 10 in 1974-75, to visit Mercury. To get into orbit around Mercury, it has followed a complex path through the inner solar system. Its journey includes one flyby of Earth, two past Venus, and three gravity-assist flybys of Mercury. MESSENGER launched in August 2004, and began orbiting Mercury in March 2011.
OSIRIS-REx (Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security--Regolith Explorer) will launch in 2016. It will travel to a near-Earth carbonaceous asteroid (101955) 1999 RQ36, study it in detail and bring back a sample (at least 60 grams or 2.1 ounces) to Earth in 2023. This sample will help us investigate planet formation and the origin of life, and the data collected at the asteroid will also aid our understanding of asteroids that can impact Earth (RQ36 is a potentially hazardous object with a 1-in-1,800 chance of impacting Earth in the year 2182). OSIRIS-REx is lead by PI Dante Lauretta of the University of Arizona and managed by GSFC.
The Laser Remote Sensing and the Planetary and Geodynamic Laboratories are partnering on the Swath Imaging Multi-polarization Photon-counting Lidar. SIMPL is an airborne prototype that demonstrates laser altimetry measurement methods and components that enable efficient, high-resolution, swath mapping of topography and surface properties from space. SIMPLE is the most efficient way to do laser ranging. It is a push-broom laser altimeter that includes four laser beams, each having a green and near infra-red component. One of SIMPL's major functions is to advance laser altimetry measurements of the cryosphere process in the polar regions.
Very Long Baseline Interferometry (VLBI) is a space geodetic technique that determines the relative positions of observing stations on the Earth by measuring the time difference between the arrival of a radio wavefront from a quasar at pairs of sites. VLBI also provides the fundamental celestial reference frame and the Earth orientation angles essential for all precision orbit determination such as GPS.