A rocket that was the last of its kind made its final lift into space early Saturday morning as it kicked off a three-year mission that will allow scientists to measure the changing levels of Earth’s ice.

United Launch Alliance’s record-setting Delta II rocket model made its swan song as it soared from Vandenberg Air Force Base at 6:02 a.m. and jump-started NASA’s ICESat-2 mission. The launch marked the 100th consecutive successful liftoff for the Delta II, the most of any rocket model. It was the 155th launch overall for the Delta II, which has been in use since 1989.

Scott Messer, a Delta II program manager with ULA, said shortly afterward that Saturday morning’s launch marked the “end of an era.”

“We are certainly proud of the history and the record of the Delta II era,” Messer said.

“We’re very proud of the people,” he added, noting that none of the rockets would have been successful without the launch teams, “and we stand on the shoulder of giants tonight.”

The launch even got an early morning shout-out from former astronaut Buzz Aldrin, who, along with Neil Armstrong, was one of the first two people to walk on the moon.

“One of my favorite sounds in the world...#LiftOff !! #welldone,” Aldrin tweeted at ULA just after the launch.

Crowds gathered throughout the Lompoc Valley to witness the milestone launch of the Delta II, which pierced through a mostly foggy predawn sky.

The ICESat-2 mission — the name stands for Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2 — has been billed by NASA as having extreme importance to the scientific community, as it will use the most advanced lasers ever utilized by NASA to accumulate precise measurements of the changes in Earth’s polar ice. This is expected to help analyze the effects of climate change on the planet.

The Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System, or ATLAS, instrument aboard the satellite, according to NASA, will be able to measure the average annual elevation change of land ice covering Greenland and Antarctica to within the width of a pencil, capturing 60,000 measurements every second.

“The new observational technologies of ICESat-2 — a top recommendation of the scientific community in NASA’s first Earth science decadal survey — will advance our knowledge of how the ice sheets of Greenland and Antarctica contribute to sea level rise,” said Michael Freilich, director of the Earth Science Division in NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

NASA reported that the data collected by the mission could address many societal needs. For example, the measurements of snow and river heights could help governments plan for floods and droughts. Further, forest height maps, showing tree density and structure, could improve computer models that firefighters use to forecast wildfire behavior. Sea ice thickness measurements could also be integrated into forecasts the U.S. Navy issues for navigation and sea ice conditions.

“Because ICESat-2 will provide measurements of unprecedented precision with global coverage, it will yield not only new insight into the polar regions, but also unanticipated findings across the globe,” said Thorsten Markus, an ICESat-2 project scientist. “The capacity and opportunity for true exploration is immense.”

The ICESat-2 was built by Northrop Grumman.

With the Delta II rocket now retired, ULA plans to utilize its Atlas and Delta IV rockets going forward. A Delta II rocket will be put on display at the rocket garden at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where visitors will be able to get up-close views of the history-making model, ULA CEO Tory Bruno announced Saturday.

The next launch from VAFB is tentatively scheduled for Oct. 7. For that one, SpaceX is slated to carry an Earth-observing satellite into orbit for Argentina’s space agency.

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Willis Jacobson covers the city of Lompoc for Lee Central Coast Newspapers. Follow him on Twitter @WJacobsonLR.



Willis Jacobson covers news and other issues, primarily those that affect the Lompoc Valley and Vandenberg Air Force Base, for Lee Central Coast News. He is a graduate of The University of Florida's College of Journalism and Communications.