ULA launches final Delta II rocket with NASA's ICESat-2

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NASA's Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) successfully launched from California at 9:02 a.m. EDT Saturday, embarking on its mission to measure the ice of Earth's frozen reaches with unprecedented accuracy.

"This program comes to a close with the final launch of NASA's ICESat-2, but its legacy will continue and the Visitor Complex will help us keep the story of the success of this much-revered rocket in the hearts and minds of the public". Thanks to ICESat-2, the rocket went out with a streak of 100 successful launches in a row.

ICESat-2 will carry just one instrument, which is called the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (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. The launch window will remain open for 2.5 hours, with a backup window available on Sunday morning.

NASA earth science division director Michael Freilich says the mission will advance knowledge of how the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica contribute to sea level rise.

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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. Once a mainstay of both government and commercial customers, the vehicle went through a gradual phaseout after the U.S. Air Force shifted payloads like Global Positioning System satellites to EELV-class rockets, including ULA's Atlas 5 and Delta 4 and, more recently, SpaceX's Falcon 9.

"It's been a very, very prominent part of space history", said Scott Messer, program manager for NASA programs at ULA, during a pre-launch press conference Wednesday (Sep. 13). 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.

The new laser will fire 10,000 times in one second, compared to the original ICESat which fired 40 times a second. The satellite's orbit will take 91 days before repeating, allowing the device to measure the same locations four times a year, so scientists can see how they change over seasons.

The ICESat-2 mission cost a little over $1 billion and the spacecraft is about the size of a Smart auto.

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