CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. - The coast-to-coast launch system that helped build critical satellite constellations and vault spacecraft to Earth's celestial neighbors roared to life for its 155th and final flight Saturday morning, delivering a $1 billion NASA mission to orbit – but the storied turquoise-and-white Delta II's journey will continue on the Space Coast.
News 6 partner Florida Today reports that after the 6:02 a.m. Pacific time liftoff from California's Vandenberg Air Force Base and successful separation of the ICESat-2 spacecraft just under an hour later, United Launch Alliance CEO Tory Bruno made a surprise announcement: One final Delta II remains, but it won't launch a mission.
"Just because we recently watched a Delta II liftoff for the last time doesn't mean we have to say goodbye," he said. "I'm excited to announce that the final Delta II rocket will take its place in the lineup of historic rockets located in the Rocket Garden at NASA's Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex in Florida."
The 132-foot-tall rocket that got its start on Valentine's Day in 1989 will join others that represent NASA's Mercury, Gemini and Apollo programs. Bruno later said it should be on display "sometime soon."
NASA's Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite 2, or ICESat-2, hitched a ride on the Delta II equipped with four solid rocket motors from Vandenberg's Space Launch Complex-2, the West Coast home of the rocket. On the East Coast, Delta II made its final flight from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station's Launch Complex 17 in 2011, capping off 110 total flights from there, including 48 GPS missions.
Delta II's twin launch towers at Launch Complex 17 were demolished in July, paving the way for commercial operator Moon Express to use it for testing engines and small lunar landers.
ICESat-2 now sits at the core of NASA's cryosphere observations, which aim to understand more about the Earth's ice and how it changes over time. Using six lasers, the satellite will fire about 10,000 pulses a second to measure how long it takes for light to reach ice and bounce back to the spacecraft, giving scientists a precise understanding of the amount of ice at the poles and in the oceans.
The satellite, according to NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine, will detect as little as a fraction of an inch of change in the surface of land ice covering Greenland and Antarctica.
"This data will help scientists investigate why and how our cryosphere is changing in a warming climate," he said.
The Northrop Grumman-built spacecraft follows the first ICESat, which was operational from 2003 to 2009 and used only a single laser beam. Since then scientists have flown aircraft over the poles to continue measurements, all of which will be compared to ICESat-2's results.
Saturday's mission marked the 54th flight NASA booked on a Delta II and the 130th successful launch since ULA was formed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin in 2006. Other notable Delta II missions include the Spirit and Opportunity Mars rovers; Mars and lunar orbiters; Spitzer and Kepler space telescopes; and the Mercury Messenger probe, to name a few.
"Delta II has affected all of the science portfolio, it has unlocked the heavens to our eyes," said Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's associate administrator of the agency's Science Mission Directorate. "The Delta II is such a marquee tool that we'll never forget."
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