Space lasers are not just the domain of evil supervillains -- they can help scientists map the Earth too.

On Saturday, NASA will launch the Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) into orbit, which carries a giant space laser known as the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS).

ATLAS will enable NASA to create detailed pictures of the planet as the satellite zooms overhead.

Every second, the six-beam laser will fire 10,000 pulses from space at the Earth and then record how long it takes until the laser pulse bounces off the land.

Around 20 photons leave ATLAS with every pulse and by measuring the travel time for a photon to leave the laser and return, scientists will get incredibly accurate measurements on the height of the planet's features.

The technology will enable scientists to describe the features of the Earth and take accurate measurements of glaciers, ice sheets and sea ice.

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