NASA counts down to launch of laser study of ice sheets

The 6:46 a.m. MT launch lifting off from Vandenberg Air Force Base on California's coast is the final mission of the medium-lift rocket that used to be the Centennial-based rocket manufacturer's work horse

Final Delta 2 rocket launch puts NASA’s ICESAT-2 satellite in orbit to monitor ice

Delta II rocket carrying launch NASA's Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) mission lifts off from Space Launch Complex-2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, on September 15, 2018.

United Launch Alliance (ULA) announced today that the last Delta II rocket will join a lineup of historic rockets in the Rocket Garden on display at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Cape Canaveral, Fla.

The Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2, or ICESat-2, is NASA's most technologically advanced ice-monitoring spacecraft to date.

Image: A Delta II rocket carries the ICESat-2 into orbit.

ICESat-2 was designed, among other things, to monitor and measure the thickness of ice cap at the Earth's North and South Pole. This time around, the laser-scanning instrument will be capable of measuring Earth's elevation every 30 inches (70 centimeters) across a 30-foot-wide track as it circles the planet.

One more Delta 2 exists, but will not be launched.

It revealed that sea ice was thinning, and ice cover was disappearing from coastal areas in Greenland and Antarctica.

Described as the world's most advanced laser instrument, ATLAS will be firing photons at the ice mass covering our planet and perform about 60,000 measurements per second, gathering data on how ice height changes on a yearly average. Many of those spacecraft are still operational to this day, with some of the most noteworthy examples being Dawn (orbiting Ceres, the largest asteroid in the solar system), Kepler (the first dedicated space-based exoplanet observatory), and the beleaguered Mars rover Opportunity, now in an unplanned state of hibernation on the Red Planet.

This was the 155th Delta II rocket to launch from California and Florida with 45 of those flying from Vandenberg for an assortment of NASA, international, commercial and government missions.

As well as tracking the increasing sea level around Earth, it will use cutting edge instruments to measure how quickly glaciers and ice sheets are melting.

"We are going to be able to look at specifically how the ice is changing just over the course of a single year", said Tom Wagner, cryosphere programme scientist at NASA. Every 91 days - 1,387 orbits - ICESat-2 will return to its starting point and begin repeating its initial observations. They will study space weather, how electrons are liberated from the Van Allen radiation belts and experimental technology that could prove useful for future spacecraft.

Along with launching ICESat-2, the Delta 2's second stage also carried four small cubesats developed by university researchers.

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