A Delta II rocket blasted into the history books while carrying a NASA newest Earth-observation satellite and a CubeSat from Cal Poly into space at Vandenberg Air Force Base early Saturday morning.
The United Launch Alliance booster, standing some 128 feet tall, lifted off at 6:02 a.m. from Space Launch Complex-2 with a deep rumble heard from Santa Maria as the marine layer spoiled views of the flight.
Liftoff occurred slightly later than initially planned to give the team time to assess a questionable temperature reading involving the rocket’s second stage. Earlier, the team encountered delays in retracting the mobile service tower from its place sheltering the rocket.
The Delta rocket carried NASA’s Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite-2, or ICESat-2, for a $1 billion mission to measure the thickness of Earth’s polar ice sheets.
For veteran launch team members, Saturday’s blastoff brought mixed emotions.
“I’m a little bit sad. I’m thrilled with mission success in that we were able to close the chapter on Delta II with a huge success of an incredibly important science payload,” said Tim Dunn, NASA launch manager. “ICESat-2 is going to do cutting-edge, scientific data gathering.
“The precision measurements it’s going to make from space are just going to be incredible so to be able to say we launched this very important science mission on the final flight of the industry workhorse is just a huge accomplishment for the entire team,” Dunn added.
Satellite separation occurred approximately an hour after the Delta II rocket’s departure. A short time later, the rocket began releasing four small satellites, or CubeSats, built by college students.
One of the CubeSats, called Damping And Vibrations Experiment or DAVE, was built by students at Cal Poly, according to a news release from the university.
The 3-pound satellite, which is about the size of a softball, studies “the behavior of particle dampers in microgravity conditions,” the university said. “Particle dampers could potentially serve as a robust and simple device to eliminate jitter in orbital assemblies or other sensitive scientific equipment.”
Students have performed experiments with the CubeSat “in vacuum and zero gravity but never at the same time — which can only be done in space,” the university said.
NASA officials said the satellite’s primary instrument will pulse its laser at Earth 10,000 times a second and precisely measure the time it takes the beams to bounce off the ground and return to ICESat-2 to determine the elevation below.
“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,” said 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,” Markus added.
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.
A large sticker on the side of the huge launch pad noted the role of workers for the Delta II missions through the years saying “Dedicated to all the Employees, Suppliers, Customers and AF Range personnel who designed, built and launched the Delta II between 1989 and today.”
After the satellite’s separation, ULA’s Tory Bruno announced that an unpurchased Delta II rocket will join the “rocket garden” display at Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex at Cape Canaveral Florida.
“The Delta II rocket has been a venerable workhorse for NASA and civilian scientists, the U.S. military, and commercial clients throughout its almost 30 years of service,” said Bruno, ULA president and CEO. “This program comes to a close with the final launch of NASA’s ICESat-2, but its legacy will continue and the Visitor Complex will help us keep the story of the success of this much-revered rocket in the hearts and minds of the public.”