IceBridge Aircraft & Instruments

IceBridge Science

Screen grab of IceBridge Science website showing graphic of P-3B with location of science instrument sensors indicated.   Find IceBridge data and publications at our science website

  › Visit site

IceBridge Blog

Operation IceBridge Logo Check our blog for the latest from IceBridge researchers
› Visit IceBridge blog

Connect with IceBridge

Blog de IceBridge - Español

Logo for Science Friday. Organizado por Maria-José Viñas

› Español blog
Loading ...

IceBridge Aircraft Fleet

NASA's airborne science laboratories, the P-3B (left) and the DC-8 (right), are used extensively by the IceBridge mission. Credit: NASA

NASA's P-3B and DC-8 airborne laboratories have been the workhorses of Operation IceBridge. These aircraft house several sophisticated instruments for measuring snow depth, ice elevation and thickness, surface temperature, bed topography and other characteristics of sea ice, ice sheets and glaciers.

The airborne laboratories have been joined by other aircraft, such as NASA's C-130 Hercules, King Air B-200 and HU-25C Falcon, the Gulfstream G-V owned by the National Science Foundation and operated by NCAR’s Research Aviation Facility, the University of Texas Institute for Geophysics' (UTIG) chartered Kenn Borek Basler BT-67, and a variety of small planes used by researchers from the University of Alaska-Fairbanks (UAF). These aircraft increase the number of instruments IceBridge can field at one time, greatly expand the geographic area covered and add a higher-altitude perspective on polar ice.


IceBridge Science Instruments

Laser Altimeters

Laser altimeters are the primary instruments on both NASA's previous ice-monitoring satellite ICESat (GLAS) and the upcoming ICESat-2 (ATLAS). Laser altimeters are used by IceBridge scientists to measure changes in ice elevation and by using these instruments, IceBridge is able to continue ICESat's record of measurements and will validate and calibrate readings by ICESat-2 in the future. NASA uses two laser altimeters, one optimized for low altitude and one for medium altitude. UTIG and UAF also use laser altimeters of their own.

Laser Altimeters in Use:


The University of Kansas's Center for Remote Sensing of Ice Sheets (CReSIS) operates a variety of radar instruments on the IceBridge P-3B and DC-8 airborne laboratories. Each of these instruments uses a different frequency band, which gives them the ability to examine the entire ice column, ranging from the surface, through accumulated snow and all the way down to the bedrock below.

Radar Instruments Used:

› More about radar

University of Texas Institute for Geophysics' (UTIG) also operates a radar instrument that flies on their aircraft.

Gravimeter and Magnetometer

The gravimeter and magnetometer, managed by Columbia University, are used together to locate the bed where radar cannot see it, this is usually where the ice is floating as radar is unable to image through water. The interpretation of the gravity data relies on knowledge of the geology that makes up the bed.

Meter Instruments Used:


Additional IceBridge instruments allow researchers to create detailed photographic maps of polar ice and measure the temperature of the surface below. Image mosaics from the Digital Mapping System are used in a variety of ways and temperature data from the KT-19 sensor can detect openings in sea ice even in the dark.

Mapping Instruments in Use:


IceBridge Flight Planning Tool

Interactive maps of IceBridge flights. Flight Planning Tool  →
View interactive maps of flights using the IceBridge Flight Planning Tool.

NASA Polar Satellites

NASA's IceBridge mission was created out of necessity. NASA's satellite mission, Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite (ICESat) in orbit since 2003, stopped collecting science data in 2009. It's replacement, ICESat-2, is planned to launch in early 2016. To help scientists bridge the critical gap in polar observations between the ICESat and ICESat-2 satellite missions, the IceBridge airborne mission was developed.

Page Last Updated: August 14th, 2014
Page Editor: Holly Zell