ORLANDO, Fla. – Saturday marked the final countdown for the Delta II rocket. After almost 30 years of spaceflight, the United Launch Alliance rocket took off from California this weekend for the last time at 9:02 a.m. Eastern time.
The Delta II is launched from California’s Vandenberg Air Force base with NASA's Earth science satellite ICESat 2. Also on board is a shoe-box-sized satellite from the University of Central Florida, called SurfSat.
Delta II has been launched more than 150 times since 1989, successfully delivering NASA’s rovers Spirit and Opportunity and the Phoenix Mars Lander to the Martian surface as well as about a dozen satellites to space.
The last of the Delta II launches have been from Vandenberg. The final launch from Cape Canaveral was in 2011, which was also the closing launch from Space Launch Complex 17.
NASA's satellite ICESat 2 stands for Ice, Cloud and land Elevation and is a space laser that will orbit the Earth at 15,600 mph measuring ice on the planet's surface. The satellite follows its predecessor, ICESat 1 which was also launched by a Delta II rocket.
The mission objective is to help scientists investigate why and how much the Earth's frozen ice is changing due to a warming climate, according to the space agency. To do that, the laser will fly around the Earth every 91 days, measuring land ice that builds up year after year and sea ice that forms over the ocean when it freezes.
SurfSat is a micro satellite known as a CubeSat, and once in space will study how sensitive electronics can be protected from electrons and ions during spaceflight. CubeSats for California Polytechnic University and University of California were also selected by NASA to launch with ICESat 2.
UCF physics assistant professor Addie Dove leads the SurfSat mission. According to Dove, commercial companies could one-day use information from SurfSat to select materials for their spacecraft to keep them safe.
“Most spacecraft are made of aluminum which is a conductor. But a lot of the time, spacecraft surfaces have paints that are especially designed for their thermal or optical properties,” Dove said. “These paints sometimes have unexpected interactions with ions and electrons in space.”
When materials encounter ions and electrons in space, it could be potentially damaging, evening frying sensitive equipment on a mission, Dove said.
Dove and her engineering and physics undergraduate, graduate and doctoral students have worked on SurfSat’s development for several years.
Doctoral candidate James “Jay” Phillips, has worked on the team since the beginning. He now works at Kennedy Space Center and plans to watch the launch in person from the west coast. Dove will also be in California for the mission.
“This is the first satellite I have ever worked on,” Phillips said. “So having the opportunity to design circuit boards and write software for a system being sent into orbit was unique.”