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.
The grand event symbolizes both a new beginning and the end of an era and will see NASA’s cutting-edge ICESat-2 satellite take off into space on the very last flight of ULA’s famous Delta II rocket.
After a 30-year career and countless memorable missions, the Delta II rocket is now being retired and will soar to the skies one last time bright and early this morning to deliver a three-satellite payload into orbit.
Delta II Swansong
The legendary Delta II rocket has more than 154 successful flights under its belt and has ferried into space a host of reputed spacecraft, including NASA’s Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers, the Phoenix Mars Lander, and an entire constellation of GPS satellites for the U.S. Air Force, states the ULA website.
The same rocket launched the original ICESat satellite back in 2003 from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. As NASA points out, this was the world’s first spacecraft designed to study Earth’s ice sheets, which it mapped for six years with a laser-based instrument called GLAS (Geoscience Laser Altimeter System).
Fifteen years later, Delta II continues the mission’s legacy by sending its successor into orbit. Launching from the same air base, ICESat-2 will monitor the planet’s polar ice with a new-generation laser instrument dubbed ATLAS (Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System).
According to Space, the final flight of the Delta II is scheduled to start at 8:46 a.m. EDT (12:46 GMT; 5:46 a.m. local California time). The launch window will remain open for 2.5 hours, with a backup window available on Sunday morning.
“Set your alarm to see lift-off — no earlier than 8:46am ET,” NASA tweeted a few hours ago.
‘Twas the night before launch & @ulalaunch's #DeltaII rocket is being prepared to launch @NASA_ICE's #ICESat2 satellite! Set your alarm to see lift off – no earlier than 8:46am ET – on https://t.co/6cTPPSrPTZ. pic.twitter.com/ganDxWHpl4
— NASA (@NASA) September 15, 2018
Today’s launch will be met by favorable weather conditions, the space agency announced yesterday, although the area’s propensity for fog might hinder the locals’ plans of watching the rocket blast off into space.
“The latest forecast from the U.S. Air Force 30th Space Wing predicts a 100 percent chance of favorable weather on launch day, with patchy fog and visibility of two-three miles,” NASA wrote in a blog post on September 14.
While 50 lucky social media users will get to experience the action right from Vandenberg, as reported by the Inquisitr, the rest of the world can tune in on NASA Live to watch the last flight of the Delta II rocket. Live coverage of the event begins as early as 8:10 a.m. EDT (12:10 GMT).
As the Inquisitr previously reported, the goal of the ICESat-2 mission, short for Ice, Cloud, and land Elevation Satellite-2, is to keep track of Earth’s thinning ice sheets and document the changes in the planet’s cryosphere — all of the frozen water that makes up sea, lake, and river ice, as well as the snow cover and the planet’s glaciers and ice caps.
For the next three years, the satellite “will measure the changing height of Earth’s ice,” space agency officials wrote on Twitter, and it will do so by relying on the unique capabilities of its space laser.
Described as the world’s most advanced laser instrument, ATLAS will be firing photons at the ice mass covering our planet and perform about 60,000 measurements per second, gathering data on how ice height changes on a yearly average.
In the blink of an eye – about half a second – our #ICESat2 satellite sends 5,000 laser pulses toward Earth. Get a behind-the-scenes look at our @NASA_ICE mission before it launches Saturday, Sept. 15 by following our @NASASocial Twitter list: https://t.co/PNoJWn5V1b #NASAsocial pic.twitter.com/qfzNzsRaxf
— NASA (@NASA) September 14, 2018
This is “one of the most amazing machines we’ve ever launched into space,” ICESat-2 program scientist Tom Wagner said in a statement.
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.
But the satellite won’t be making the trip to space alone. 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.
Tomorrow’s #ICESat2 launch comes with a bonus — a pair of tiny satellites that will study how energetic electrons make their way into our atmosphere from space. Meet the twin ELFIN CubeSats hitching a ride to orbit: https://t.co/QT9F69LREN pic.twitter.com/wSdG1WUhkC
— NASA (@NASA) September 14, 2018
Built by the University of California, Los Angeles, the twin CubeSats are setting out on a pioneering mission to study why electrons escape the radiation zone around our planet, known as the Van Allen Belts, and fall into Earth’s atmosphere.
“When magnetic storms form in near-Earth space, they create waves that jiggle Earth’s magnetic field lines, kicking electrons out of the Van Allen Belts and down into our atmosphere. ELFIN aims to be the first to simultaneously observe this electron precipitation while also verifying the causal mechanism, measuring the magnetic waves and the resulting ‘lost’ electrons,” NASA explained in a news release.