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NASA’s Lucy mission is ready to launch and explore asteroids never seen before

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Weather conditions are above 90% favorable on the morning of October 16, when Lucy’s mission will leave Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 5:34 am ET. If it does not open at this time, the take-off window will remain open for 75 minutes.

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

So far, our only visions of the Trojans have been representations or animations by artists. Lucy will provide the first high-resolution images of the appearance of these asteroids.

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

“At the heart of Lucy is science and how it will tell us about Trojans,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate director of NASA’s Scientific Mission Directorate.

“It’s so important to go and watch them because these asteroids tell us about a chapter in our own history: in this case, the history of the formation of planets outside the solar system,” Zurbuchen said. “I’m still amazed at the fact that if you take a rock or look at one of these planetary bodies and add science to it, it becomes a history book.”

Visiting mysterious asteroids

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

The spacecraft will fly through an asteroid in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and explore seven of the Trojans. Throughout her mission, Lucy will end up swinging back into Earth’s orbit three times to obtain gravity assistance that can throw her on the right path. This will make Lucy the first spaceship to travel to Jupiter and return to Earth.

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

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

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

Both the fossil and the mission are a nod to the Beatles’ tune “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” which is why the Lucy mission logo includes a diamond.

Over the course of twelve years, Lucy will travel about 6.4 billion kilometers (4 billion miles) moving 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 from Homer’s “Iliad”: Euribats, Queta, Polimele, Leuc, Orus, Patroclus, and Menoetius.

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

Euribates was chosen because it is the largest vestige of an ancient massive collision, meaning it could reveal a look at what is inside an asteroid. Observations made with the Hubble Space Telescope found that the small asteroid called Queta is a Euribat satellite.

Each of the Lucy asteroids will fly differing in size and color.

“One of the really amazing things about Trojans when we started studying them from the ground up is the difference they have between them,” Levison said. “So if you want to understand what this population tells us about how the planets formed, you have to understand that diversity and that’s what Lucy intends to do.”

An engineering feat

The Lucy spacecraft is more than 46 meters (14 meters) from end to end, mainly due to its giant solar panels, each approximately the width of a school bus, designed to hold a power supply to the instruments. of the probe. But Lucy also has fuel to help her execute some skilled maneuvers on the way to the asteroids.

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

NASA spacecraft carrying a sample of asteroids from history that is now heading for Earth

“Lucy will be NASA’s first mission to travel so far from the sun without nuclear power,” said Joan Salute, associate director of flight programs for NASA’s Division of Planetary Sciences. “To generate enough energy, Lucy has two very large circular array systems that open like Chinese fans. They open autonomously and simultaneously, and it occurs 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 asteroids’ surface materials. The probe will communicate with Earth through its antenna, which can also be used to help determine the masses of asteroids.

The Lucy spacecraft, almost assembled, is on display in late 2020.

The instruments will allow the scientific team to look for moons around these asteroids and craters on their surfaces, which can help determine their ages, as well as the origin and evolution of asteroids.

Lucy will fly through asteroids at 6,705 meters per second at about 15,000 miles per hour, about four times slower than when NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft compressed by Pluto and the distant object Arrokoth, said Hal Weaver, principal investigator of Lucy’s LORRI instrument at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory.
Lucy will also be about 965 kilometers away from each asteroid during its overflight, as opposed to 3,218 kilometers from Overflight over Arrokoth, which means that Troy images will have four times better resolution.

Once the Lucy mission is over, the team plans to propose an expanded mission to explore more Trojans. The spacecraft will remain in a stable orbit that follows the path of its exploration between Earth and Jupiter, and will have no chance of colliding with either for more than 100,000 years. Eventually, if the orbit becomes unstable, it will likely go on a mission doomed to the sun or be expelled from our solar system.

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