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

16 September 2018

The United Launch Alliance booster, standing some 128 feet tall, lifted off at 6:02 a.m. from Space Launch Complex-2 with a deep rumble heard from Santa Maria as the marine layer spoiled views of the flight.

The Delta rocket carried NASA's Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2, or ICESat-2, for a $1 billion mission to measure the thickness of Earth's polar ice sheets. The round trip is timed to a billionth of a second.

For veteran launch team members, Saturday's blastoff brought mixed emotions.

"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.

"I'm a little bit sad". With that data, scientists can forecast its likely impact on the world.

Importantly, the laser will measure the slope and height of the ice, not just the area it covers.

Satellite separation occured approximately an hour after the Delta II rocket's departure. 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.

"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. Twenty-three minutes later, the stage will fire again to set up the release of four small satellites.

First entering service in 1989, the Delta II was NASA's workhorse rocket, with Saturday's launch capping off 100 successful launches in a row.

Boeing - working as part of ULA - has completed the 100th consecutively successful launch of its 30-year-old Delta II rocket, bringing to an end the vehicle's storied history of missions for the U.S. military, NASA, and commercial customers.

Launch was delayed 16 minutes by a minor technical glitch, but the final moments of the countdown went smoothly and the slender rocket quickly vaulted away from its firing stand at Vandenberg Air Force Base, Calif., arcing away to the south over the Pacific Ocean.

"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.