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

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

A $1 billion NASA mission that will use a laser to track changing ice levels on Earth soared into space early Saturday (Sept. 15), launching into a predawn California sky on a mission that also marked the final flight of a record-setting rocket.

A Delta 2 rocket carrying the ICESat-2 lifted off from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 6.02am local time on Saturday and headed over the Pacific Ocean.

The ICESat-2 satellite - the acronym stands for Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite 2 - is the most sophisticated ice-monitoring spacecraft ever launched, equipped with advanced electronics and a laser that will fire 10,000 pulses per second at the ground below and then capture the faint reflections.

Measurements will be taken every 2.3 feet along the satellite's path. The launch window will remain open for 2.5 hours, with a backup window available on Sunday morning. From it, scientists learnt that sea ice was thinning, and ice cover was disappearing from coastal areas in Greenland and Antarctica.

As a side benefit, the satellite will measure the height of the planet's forests and deserts as well.

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It measures height by precisely timing how long it takes individual photons of light from a Laser to leave the satellite, bounce off Earth and return to the satellite. The Delta II's second stage engine completed the first of its four planned burns 11 minutes after liftoff, placing it into an initial elliptical transfer orbit.

"Science often moves forward when scientists figure out new and more precise ways to measure things, and with ICESat-2, and that's exactly what we're going to do", NASA scientist Tom Wagner told UPI.

This was the 155th Delta II rocket to launch from California and Florida with 45 of those flying from Vandenberg for an assortment of NASA, international, commercial and government missions.

No, it's not the villainous plan of a James Bond antagonist - although we'd totally understand if you thought it might be.

According to the university, the micro-satellites each weigh 8 pounds and are about the size of a loaf of bread, and they're created to gather scientific data on magnetic storms in near-Earth space. They will study space weather, how electrons are liberated from the Van Allen radiation belts and experimental technology that could prove useful for future spacecraft. During its operational life, it also sent up the Kepler telescope, the twin lunar-orbiting GRAIL spacecraft, and a total of 48 Global Positioning System satellites.

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