How does the Aqua satellite "see" sea ice? Microwaves. Everything on Earth’s surface -- including people -- emits microwave radiation, the properties of which vary with the emitter, thereby allowing the AMSR-E microwave sensor on Aqua to map the planet.
Ice emits more microwave radiation than water, making regions of the ocean with floating ice appear much brighter than the open ocean to the AMSR-E sensor. This difference allows the satellite to capture a sea ice record year-round, through cloud cover and the months of polar night. Continuous records are important because sea ice is dynamic. Besides melting and freezing, the ice moves with wind and currents which can cause it to split or pile up.
"The data from AMSR-E and other NASA satellites are critical for understanding the coupling between sea ice and the ocean and atmosphere," said Tom Wagner, Cryosphere program manager at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "It’s important for us to understand these connections to improve our predictive models of how the planet will change."