Nasa blasts off space laser satellite to track ice loss on Earth

ICESAT-2 launch

Final Delta 2 rocket launches $1 billion ice probe

Cloaked in pre-dawn darkness, the $1 billion, half-ton ICESat-2 launched aboard a Delta II rocket from Vandenberg Air Force base in California at 6:02am (1302 GMT).

The NASA payload Delta II launched earlier this morning is known as ICESat-2 (short for Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite) and weighs in around 1500 kg (3300 lb), all dedicated to a scientific instrument known as ATLAS (Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System).

The Delta II will lift the Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2 mission, a satellite created to measure polar ice sheets, sea ice thickness and global vegetation.

A large sticker on the side of the huge launch pad noted the role of workers for the Delta II missions through the years saying "Dedicated to all the Employees, Suppliers, Customers and AF Range personnel who designed, built and launched the Delta II between 1989 and today".

The rocket's primary payload is NASA's Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2 - or ICESat-2.

A Delta 2 rocket lifted off September 15 carrying a NASA Earth science satellite on the final flight of a vehicle whose heritage dates back to the beginning of the Space Age.

ICESat-2 is meant to last three years but has enough fuel to continue for over a decade, if mission directors decide to extend its life.

NASA's Launch Services Program, based at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, is responsible for launch service acquisition, integration, analysis and launch management.

In addition to ice, the satellite's other measurements, such as the tops of trees, snow and river heights, may help with research into the amount of carbon stored in forests, and also with flood and drought planning and wildfire behaviour, among other uses.

"ATLAS has the ability to time tag a single photon to billionth of a second accuracy, said Donya Douglas-Bradshaw, the ATLAS instrument manager at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center".

ICESat-2 suffered delays because of problems with ATLAS, notably a failure of one of its lasers. 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. On its last journey into space, the Delta II rocket will also give a ride to a pair of mini-satellites called ELFIN (Electron Losses and Fields Investigation), NASA revealed yesterday.

At launch, the satellite was scheduled to operate for three years, but much of its 3,482 lbs. With that data, scientists can forecast its likely impact on the world.

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