A revolutionary new satellite entered orbit and a veteran rocket retired today as NASA's Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 (ICESat-2) lifted off at Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. ICESat-2 rode into the sky atop the last Delta II booster as it headed north into a polar orbit 290 miles (467 km) above the Earth on a mission to monitor the ice caps using a new laser system.

NASA says the launch took place as scheduled at 6:02 am PDT, with the satellite separating normally before being detected 75 minutes after launch by ground stations in Svalbard, Norway. The spacecraft is currently undergoing final system checks and is expected to enter service in about two weeks.

The US$96.6 million dollar IceSat-2 is designed to make high-resolution measurements of polar ice sheets, glaciers, sea ice freeboard, land elevations, and vegetation. This will be done using the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS) – IceSat-2's only instrument. ATLAS uses six green laser beams to minutely measure annual height changes in objectives like the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets – to within four millimeters. The hope is that this will lead to a better understanding of change's in the Earth's ice cover and how this affects climate.

Today's launch also saw the end of the Delta II rocket, which has been a mainstay of the US rocket fleet since it first flew on February 14, 1989. Currently operated by the United Launch Alliance (ULA), the Delta II began life as the booster for the first Global Positioning System (GPS) satellites before going on to lift a series of Earth observation, scientific, and interplanetary missions.

"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," says Thorsten Markus, ICESat-2 project scientist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center. "We are really looking forward to making those data available to the science community as quickly as possible so we can begin to explore what ICESat-2 can tell us about our complex home planet."

Source: NASA

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