NASA’s Lucy mission was launched to explore never-before-seen asteroids

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Weather conditions were over 90% favorable on Saturday morning when the Lucy mission took off from the Cape Canaveral space station at 5:34 a.m. ET. The launch team confirmed that they received a signal from the spacecraft confirming that it was safe and sound just after 7 a.m. ET and that Lucy successfully deployed her impressive solar panels.

Lucy will embark on a 12-year mission to explore Jupiter’s trojan asteroid swarms, which have never been observed. The Trojan asteroids, which borrow their name from Greek mythology, orbit the sun in two swarms – one ahead of Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, and the other behind.

Our only glimpses of Trojans so far have been artist renderings or animation. Lucy will provide the first high resolution images of what these asteroids look like.

Lucy is the first spacecraft designed to visit and observe these asteroids, remnants of the early days of our solar system. The mission will help researchers travel back in time to find out how the solar system was formed 4.5 billion years ago. Lucy’s 12-year mission could also help scientists understand how our planets ended up in their current locations.

“At the heart of Lucy’s is science and how she’s going to tell us about Trojans,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA’s Science Missions Directorate.

A photo of Lucy's successful launch early Saturday morning.
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“It’s so important to go observe them because these asteroids tell us a chapter of our own history – in this case, the story of the formation of the outer planets in the solar system,” Zurbuchen said. “I’m always amazed that if you pick up a stone or look at one of these planetary bodies and add science to it, it turns into a history book.”

Visiting mysterious asteroids

There are around 7,000 Trojan asteroids, and the largest is 250 kilometers in diameter. Asteroids represent the remaining material that still lingers after the formation of the giant planets in our solar system, including Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. Even though they share an orbit with Jupiter, asteroids are still very far from the planet itself, almost as far as Jupiter is from the sun, according to NASA.

The fastest orbiting asteroid found in our solar system

The spacecraft is expected to fly over an asteroid in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and then it will explore seven of the Trojans. During her mission, Lucy will eventually return to Earth’s orbit three times to benefit from gravitational assistance that can get her on the right track. This will make Lucy the first spacecraft to travel to Jupiter and return to Earth.

This graph shows Lucy's impressive trajectory to reach asteroids over 12 years.
The mission takes its name from the Lucy fossil, the remains of an ancient human ancestor discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. The skeleton has helped researchers piece together aspects of human evolution, and members of the NASA team Lucy hope their mission will achieve a similar feat regarding the history of our solar system.

The Trojans “are held there by the gravitational effect of Jupiter and the sun, so if you put an object there early in the history of the solar system, it is stable forever,” said Hal Levison, the researcher. principal of the Lucy mission, based at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “These things are really the fossils of what the planets were formed from.”

How did Lucy, our first human ancestor, die 3 million years ago?

The fossil and the mission are both nods to the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds”, which is why the Lucy mission logo includes a diamond.

Over 12 years, Lucy will travel nearly 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) at approximately 400,000 miles per hour (17,881.6 meters per second).

Lucy will specifically visit these asteroids, all named for heroes you might recognize in Homer’s “The Iliad”: Eurybates, Queta, Polymele, Leucus, Orus, Patroclus, and Menoetius.

NASA's Lucy mission will explore seven Trojan asteroids.  This illustration shows the binary asteroid Patroclus / Menoetius, Eurybates, Orus, Leucus, Polymele and the main belt asteroid Donald Johanson.

Eurybates was chosen because it is the largest remnant of an ancient massive collision, meaning it could reveal a glimpse of what’s inside an asteroid. Observations made using the Hubble Space Telescope revealed that the small asteroid named Queta is a Eurybates satellite.

Each of the asteroids that Lucy will hover over differs in size and color.

“One of the really surprising things about Trojans when we started studying them from the ground up is how different they are from each other,” said Levison. “So if you want to understand what this population is telling us about how the planets formed, you have to understand this diversity and that’s what Lucy is supposed to do.”

A feat of engineering

The Lucy spacecraft is over 14 meters end-to-end, largely because of its giant solar panels – each the width of a school bus – designed to maintain power to the spacecraft’s instruments. spatial. But Lucy also has fuel to help her perform some skillful maneuvers on the path of the asteroids.

It took a team of more than 500 engineers and scientists to conceptualize and build the spacecraft, said Donya Douglas-Bradshaw, Lucy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.

NASA spacecraft carrying historic asteroid sample is now heading for Earth

“Lucy will be the first NASA mission to travel this far from the sun without nuclear power,” said Joan Salute, associate director of flight programs in NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division. bays that open like Chinese fans. These open autonomously and simultaneously, and this happens about an hour after launch. “

Lucy will use three scientific instruments to study asteroids, including color and black-and-white cameras, a thermometer, and an infrared imaging spectrometer to determine the composition of asteroid surface materials. The spacecraft will communicate with Earth using its antenna, which can also be used to help determine the masses of asteroids.

The nearly assembled Lucy spaceship is shown in late 2020.

The instruments will allow the science team to search for satellites around these asteroids as well as craters on their surface, which can help determine their age as well as the origin and evolution of the asteroids.

Lucy will fly over asteroids at about 15,000 miles per hour (6,705 meters per second), about four times slower than when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft passed Pluto and the distant Arrokoth object, said Hal. Weaver, principal investigator of Lucy’s L’LORRI instrument. at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
This long exposure image, taken over 2 minutes and 30 seconds, captures the beauty of the early morning launch.
Lucy will also be around 600 miles (965 kilometers) from each asteroid as it hovers, compared to around 2,000 miles (3,218 kilometers) from the Arrokoth flyby, meaning images of Troy will have four times the resolution.

Once the Lucy mission is complete, the team plans to come up with an extended mission to explore more Trojans. The spacecraft will remain in a stable orbit that traces its path of exploration between Earth and Jupiter, and it will have no chance of colliding with either for more than 100,000 years. Eventually, if the orbit becomes unstable, it will likely either head towards a doomed mission to the sun or be kicked out of our solar system.

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