Just two days ahead of what will be a historic launch from Vandenberg Air Force Base, engineers with NASA’s Launch Services Program hosted an informal gathering Thursday at the Lompoc Public Library to discuss the upcoming mission and answer questions about the future of space exploration. 

About 50 people attended the early afternoon function, which was held in the library’s Grossman Gallery.

Shawn Daly, a NASA CubeSat integration engineer, and Rex Englehart, a NASA CubeSat mission manager, led the presentation, which included general information about NASA and details about the agency’s ICESat-2 mission, which is set to kick off with United Launch Alliance’s final Delta II rocket launch early Saturday.

The launch, scheduled for a 40-minute window beginning at 5:46 a.m., will not only mark the finale for the long-running Delta rocket vehicle, which has launched 238 NASA missions since 1960, but it will also carry into space NASA’s most advanced space lasers ever. The agency plans to use the ICESat-2 lasers — ICESat stands for Ice, Cloud and land Elevation Satellite — to measure changes to Earth’s ice and provide a detailed analysis of the effects of the planet’s changing climate.

While the mission is being billed by NASA as incredibly important to the science community, the speakers at Thursday’s presentation in Lompoc focused on several aspects of the launch, including the four CubeSat, or small satellites, that will also be launched as part of the mission, and the significance and reasons for the end of the Delta program.

“Everyone talks SpaceX now and about their innovation and that type of thing, but I gotta tell you, Delta II, in general, is that — it is the old-school version of that,” Daly said. “They had the most launches, they were the workhorse, they were the things that were being able to get you up in space and make sure you were there and that it was done properly. But they were also evolving on a regular basis.”

Later in the presentation, Daly was asked why the Delta program was ending. He replied that it mainly came down to cost-effectiveness and that commercial rocket companies were finding ways to cut expenses, ultimately phasing out the Delta series.

The engineers also focused on some of the details of the ICESat-2 mission, which will mark the first time in nearly a decade that NASA will have the ability, from space, to measure ice sheet surface elevation across the entire planet. The first ICESat mission ran from 2003 to 2009.

ICESat-2, according to NASA, will carry a single instrument, the Advanced Topographic Laser Altimeter System (ATLAS), which will send 10,000 laser pulses per second to Earth’s surface and measure the height of ice sheets, glaciers, sea ice and vegetation by calculating the time it takes the pulses to return to the spacecraft.

NASA reports that the lasers will be able to measure the amount of sea ice floating above the ocean surface to within an inch, and will also have the capacity to measure annual changes across ice sheets to within 2 millimeters, or the width of a pencil.

The information collected by the satellite will enable researchers to track changes in land and sea ice with unparalleled detail, according to the agency, which will aid scientists’ understanding of what causes those changes.

The mission is scheduled to last three years but will have enough fuel to last 10, if mission leaders decide to extend it.

Thursday’s presentation was part of a partnership between NASA and Explore Lompoc, which promotes Lompoc Valley tourism. Other events included an interactive presentation and discussion about the mission later Thursday evening at the Dick DeWees Community and Senior Center.

Prelaunch events planned for Friday include:

  • “Coffee with a Scientist,” an informal meeting with ICESat-2 scientists scheduled for 8 to 10:30 a.m. at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott in Buellton;
  • ICESat-2 Scavenger Hunt/Hands-on Stations and talk with a scientist event, planned for 2 to 4:30 p.m., also at the Santa Ynez Valley Marriott in Buellton; and
  • A “Beautiful Earth Program” that will include live music and a multimedia experience under the stars from 7 to 9 p.m. at the Solvang Festival Theater in Solvang.

The ICESat-2 launch teams concluded successful launch-readiness reviews on Thursday, and 30th Space Wing officials predict a 100-percent chance of favorable weather during the scheduled launch window.

Saturday morning’s launch will be live-streamed online at nasa.gov.

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

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