NASA satellite launched to measure Earth's ice changes

It was the final launch for a Delta 2 rocket

It was the final launch for a Delta 2 rocket Credit Reuters

Live coverage of the event begins as early as 8:10 a.m. EDT.

The USD 1 billion, half-ton ICESat-2 launched aboard a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force base at 6:02 am (local time).

At launch, the satellite was scheduled to operate for three years, but much of its 3,482 lbs. (The last failure was in 1997, when a Delta II carrying a Global Positioning System satellite exploded seconds after leaving the pad.) As noted by the Verge, prior payloads have included the Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes, the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, and the original ICESat.

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The mission is a successor to the original Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite that operated from 2003 to 2009. As NASA points out, this was the world's first spacecraft created to study Earth's ice sheets, which it mapped for six years with a laser-based instrument called GLAS (Geoscience Laser Altimeter System). "Every minute of every hour of every day for the next three years".

The stars returned for this final Delta 2 launch, but with a twist, he said: people ranging from retirees who once worked on the program to customers and range personnel were invited to sign the stars.

Today's launch will be met by favorable weather conditions, the space agency announced yesterday, although the area's propensity for fog might hinder the locals' plans of watching the rocket blast off into space.

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Originally built by McDonnell Douglass, the rockets are now run by United Launch Alliance, which still launches payloads with the Atlas rockets and is designing a new rocket, the Vulcan Centaur. The first Delta II was launched in 1989 from Florida with the first California launch in 1995.

NASA launched a satellite Saturday over the Pacific Ocean to measure changes in Earth's ice sheets, glaciers, sea ice and vegetation.

For its send-off, a lighter variant of Delta II placed ICESat-2 - essentially a large laser radar (LIDAR) array with solar panels and thrusters - into a polar orbit, where it will work to measure and track changes in Earth's vast ice resources and will do so with extreme accuracy and precision. ICESat-2 is NASA's most advanced Laser instrument - the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System, or ATLAS.

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"ULA is proud that the Delta II rocket has been a significant piece of history, launching more than 50 missions for NASA", said Gary Wentz, ULA vice president of Government and Commercial Programs. It will do this by calculating how long it takes for individual photons that leave the instrument to ricochet off Earth and return to the satellite.

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