Nasa launches satellite to study ice changes on Earth

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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.

ICESat-2 (Ice, Cloud and Land Elevation Satellite-2), which launched Saturday from NASA's base in California, will be able to measure the height of features on Earth, helping scientists to track patterns such as melting glaciers. The launch will be the final journey of the Delta II rocket, which has been flying for 29 years.

The mission will inform sea level rise forecasts and is "exceptionally important for science", according to Richard Slonaker, ICESat-2 program executive at NASA.

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.

The 3,340-pound satellite, built by Northrup Grumman, is equipped with a single instrument known as ATLAS, the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System, that was developed at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center.

An artist's depiction of the ICESat-2 satellite at work studying Earth's ice sheets.

Nasa has successfully launched a laser satellite to map the loss of ice sheets and glaciers around the world as climate change continues to affect our planet.

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ICESat-2 will measure the height of our changing Earth, one laser pulse at a time, 10,000 laser pulses per second. Once a mainstay of both government and commercial customers, the vehicle went through a gradual phaseout after the U.S. Air Force shifted payloads like Global Positioning System satellites to EELV-class rockets, including ULA's Atlas 5 and Delta 4 and, more recently, SpaceX's Falcon 9.

"Three, two one, liftoff!" said a launch commentator on NASA television. Its dense, frequent coverage and high resolution should help detect minute changes in inland ice sheets and shelves, along with the thinning of Arctic and Antarctic sea ice.

ATLAS produces six finely tuned laser beams of bright-green light, which it beams down to bounce off Earth's surface.

This is "one of the most fantastic machines we've ever launched into space", ICESat-2 program scientist Tom Wagner said in a statement. "This precision allows the instrument to detect annual changes in ice elevation on the order of a half a centimeter".

The Delta 2's RS-27A main engine thundered to life on time at 6:02 a.m. PDT (GMT-7; 9:02 a.m. EDT) followed by ignition of four strap-on solid-fuel boosters.

It will take a measurement every 2.3ft (70cm) along the satellite's path.

The Delta II has carried the majority of the Iridium communication satellites in orbit between 1998 and 2002.