Ending a storied 30-year run as one of America's most successful rockets, United Launch Alliance's 155th and final Delta 2 roared to life for the last time Saturday and soared away from the California coast carrying a $1 billion NASA satellite to measure the thickness and extent of polar ice sheets, changes in sea level and the height of forest canopies and clouds. This was the last ever Delta 2 rocket launch.
Delta II rockets have been used for missions including the Phoenix Mars Lander, plus all operational Global Positioning System missions, as well as commercial missions.
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The first Delta 2 lifted off February 14, 1989, and since then it has been the launch vehicle for Global Positioning System orbiters, Earth-observing and commercial satellites, and interplanetary missions including the twin Mars rovers Spirit and Opportunity. Much of that money went toward developing a single, high-tech instrument dubbed the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System, or ATLAS.
"ICESat-2 is created to answer a simple glaciology question very, very well: It will tell us where, and how fast, the ice sheets are thickening and thinning", Benjamin Smith, a glaciologist at the University of Washington's Applied Physics Laboratory who's a member of the mission's science definition team, said in a news release.
ICESat-2 will measure Earth's ice sheets from space with a laser.
The satellite's powerful lasers will send 10,000 pulses per second down to the surface of the Earth.
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The newly launched satellite was built by Northrop Grumman.
NASA said the mission will add a "third dimension" to its study of Earth. Based on the time it takes for the pulses to return to the satellite, scientists will be able to calculate the height of ice sheets, glaciers and vegetation. "We are really looking forward to making those data available to the science community as quickly as possible so we can begin to explore what ICESat-2 can tell us about our complex home planet".
ATLAS produces six finely tuned laser beams of bright-green light, which it beams down to bounce off Earth's surface. Measurements will be taken every 0.7m along the satellite's path. Four CubeSats accompanied the ICESat-2 into space. "Space weather research is also crucial for space tourism and space exploration".
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