A Delta 2 rocket lifted off Sept. 15 carrying a NASA Earth science satellite on the final flight of a the United Launch Alliance Delta 2. The vehicle lifted off from Space Launch Complex 2 at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California at 9:02 a.m. EDT.
The primary payload, NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite 2 (ICESat-2), separated from the second stage about 53 minutes after liftoff, followed by four cubesat secondary payloads more than 20 minutes later.
ICESat-2 is a successor to the ICESat satellite that collected information on ice cover and other Earth science data from 2003 to 2010. Northrop Grumman Innovation Systems built the satellite, which weighed 1,514 kilograms at launch.
ICESat-2 is slated to last at least three years in orbit, with enough fuel to last up to seven years if needed. It is equipped with the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS), which will send pulses of laser light down to Earth and record how long the laser light’s photons take to bounce back to the satellite.
ATLAS will send 10,000 pulses per second, with each pulse containing around 20 trillion photons. Only a dozen or so will make it back up to ICESat-2, however, a trip that will take around 3.3 milliseconds total. The satellite will make a full orbit around Earth every three months (91 days), allowing it to collect measurements every season.
The launch was the 155th and final flight of the Delta 2, which first launched in February 1989. One more Delta 2 exists, but will not be launched. Instead, ULA President and Chief Executive Tory Bruno announced after the ICESat-2 launch that this final Delta 2 will be given to the Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex to be put on display in its “Rocket Garden” of launch vehicles.