NASA launches laser satellite ICESat-2 to measure ice loss

Alex Polinsky NASA

(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.

The ICESat-2 satellite - the acronym stands for Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite 2 - is the most sophisticated ice-monitoring spacecraft ever launched, equipped with advanced electronics and a laser that will fire 10,000 pulses per second at the ground below and then capture the faint reflections.

The laser is created to fire 10,000 times per second, divided into six beams of hundreds of trillions of photons.

Known as laser altimetry, ATLAS is a rather exceptional example of LIDAR's space-based utility and has been created to reliably measure ice-sheet elevation changes of as little as 4mm per year, despite the fact that it will orbit 500 km (310 mi) above Earth's surface at a velocity of 7.8 km/s (4.9 mi/s).

Its operators, Lockheed Martin and Boeing's joint United Launch Alliance, are switching over to their existing Atlas V and Delta IV Heavy fleets as well as the still-in-development Vulcan Centaur rocket.

"While the launch today was incredibly exciting, for us scientists the most anticipated part of the mission starts when we switch on the laser and get our first data", said Thorsten Markus, ICESat-2 project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "The ATLAS instrument took longer than we thought".

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This launch, which was the 100th consecutive successful Delta 2, brought back a tradition from earlier Delta 2 missions.

The Delta II had its first successful launch on Valentine's Day, 1989.

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. "Delta 2 holds a really special place in so many folks in the launch industry's hearts".

NASA's newest ice-measuring satellite was launched into orbit around Earth's poles on Saturday morning aboard the last flight of United Launch Alliance Delta II rocket.

If all proceeds to plan, the Delta II's second stage AJ10-118K engine will reignite for 6 seconds at 47 minutes into the mission before deploying ICESat-2 into orbit.

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