ICESat-2: Tracking Earth’s Ice with Unparalleled Detail

The Delta II rocket blasts off carrying the ICESat-2. Pic NASA  Bill Ingalls

The Delta II rocket lifted off successfully from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 6:02 a.m. on Saturday for the final time.

As for the Delta 2 rocket used for the launch, this was its last mission, stated United Launch Alliance. The rocket has launched more than 150 times with a success rate of 98.7 per cent, according to NASA.

Delta 2 rockets have launched scores of satellite telephone relay stations, seven Mars missions - including the Pathfinder, Spirit and Opportunity rovers - numerous NASA astronomy missions, Earth observation satellites and commercial payloads. The satellite will carry a single instrument, the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS), which measures the travel times of laser pulses to calculate the distance between the spacecraft and Earth's surface.

A Delta II rocket carries the ICESat-2 into orbit. Pic NASA  Bill Ingalls
Image A Delta II rocket carries the ICESat-2 into orbit. Pic NASA Bill Ingalls

Although the ICESat-2 mission is only slated to run for three years, the spacecraft carries enough fuel to last more than twice as long and could potentially carry on surveying the Earth's ice sheets for an entire decade, notes Space.

Nowhere are the realities of human-driven climate change more apparent than at Earth's thawing poles, yet for almost a decade, NASA has lacked a dedicated satellite to measure how high the polar ice is piled-and how it is subsiding as ice melts or slides into the oceans.

The spacecraft's sole instrument is an improved laser altimeter called Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS), which is created to fire 10,000 laser pulses a second to obtain elevation data with an accuracy of half a centimeter. "ICESat-2 will help scientists investigate why, and how much, our cryosphere is changing in a warming climate, while also measuring heights across Earth's temperate and tropical region and take stock of the vegetation in forests worldwide".

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"Set your alarm to see lift-off - no earlier than 8:46am ET", NASA tweeted a few hours ago. ICESat-2 was first proposed in 2008, but construction didn't begin until 2010, with an estimated launch date in 2015.

The laser on the satellite fires 10,000 times a second while travelling at a speed of 7km (4.3 miles) a second, from a height of 300 miles (482km).

Moving in an orbit that goes from pole to pole, ICESat-2 traverses 1,387 different orbital paths every 91 days. ICESat-2 will orbit from pole to pole, taking measurements all along the way but offering the densest height maps near the poles.

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In just a few short moments, NASA and United Launch Alliance (ULA) are about to make history with an epic rocket launch that has been the talk of the scientific community for the past months. Two of them - twin Electron Losses and Fields Investigation CubeSats, or ELFIN, were designed by a team of UCLA students, some of whom are now alumni or graduate students.

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