National Aeronautics and Space Administration

Wallops Flight Facility


The Airborne Topographic Mapper (ATM) is a scanning LIDAR developed and used by NASA for observing the Earth’s topography for several scientific applications, foremost of which is the measurement of changing arctic and antarctic icecaps and glaciers. It typically flies on aircraft at an altitude between 400 and 800 meters above ground level, and measures topography to an accuracy of better than 10 centimeters by incorporating measurements from GPS (global positioning system) receivers and inertial navigation system (INS) attitude sensors.


The ATM instruments are based at NASA’s Wallops Flight Facility (WFF) in Virginia. They commonly fly aboard the NASA P3-B based at WFF and have flown aboard the NASA DC-8, twin-otters (DHC-6), C-130’s and other P-3 aircraft. The ATM has flown surveys in Greenland nearly every year since 1993. Other uses have included measurement of sea ice, verification of satellite radar and laser altimeters, and measurement of sea-surface elevation and ocean wave characteristics. The altimeter often flies in conjunction with a variety of other instruments. The ATM has been participating in NASA’s Operation IceBridge since 2009.

Other uses and examples of ATM data are highlighted below:

Mount Erebus is an active volcano located in Antartica. ATM’s high-resolution DEM (2×2 meter) of the caldera has been used to map volcanic features such as lava channels, lava lakes, volcanic cones and active vents.

Meteor Crater in Arizona (top) is a 50,000 year old meteorite impact crater. ATM’s high-resolution DEM (bottom) of the crater has been used to study slopes, roughness, ejecta volumes, etc. for planetary crater studies both for study of geomorphology and for guiding the design of landing craft. Many details from the oblique aerial photo taken during the survey flight are visible in the DEM such as trails, bushes and cars in the visitor center parking lot.

ATM topography was used to characterize river channel morphology, width, fluvial patterns, slope, and other physical attributes in studies of flood frequency and inundation levels.

ATM’s waveform product can be used for bathymetry processing by calculating the range and direction using refractive index in water and multi-return waveform data. The above image shows depth estimates of a supraglacial glacial lake which together with auxiliary instruments can be used to calibrate spaceborne methods.

Click HERE to download a brief technical description of the ATM instrument suite.