Lucy’s launch is less than three weeks away.
NASA’s Lucy asteroid probe is set to begin its 12-year space odyssey next month.
Lucy is scheduled to launch atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Florida’s Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Oct. 16. The liftoff will kick off a landmark mission that will see Lucy get up close and personal with eight different space rocks over the next dozen years.
“We’re visiting more asteroids than any other spacecraft in history,” Lucy principal investigator Hal Levison, of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, said during a news conference on Tuesday (Sept. 28).
“We’re also going to exceed another [record]: We’re going farther from the sun than any other solar-powered spacecraft in history,” Levison added.
Lucy will take the distance crown from NASA’s Juno probe, which has been orbiting Jupiter since July 2016.
Studying the Trojan asteroids
Lucy’s main science targets are Trojan asteroids, space rocks that loop around the sun in Jupiter’s orbit. There are two groups of Trojans: one that “leads” Jupiter around our star and one that “trails” the giant planet.
Astronomers have catalogued more than 7,000 Trojans to date, but the total population of the space rocks is much higher, perhaps even rivaling that of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Levison said. Lucy will be the first spacecraft to get an up-close look at any Trojan, and its observations could be revelatory.
“Planet formation and evolution models suggest that the Trojan asteroids are likely remnant[s] of the same primordial material that formed the outer planets, and thus serve as time capsules from the birth of our solar system over 4 billion years ago,” SwRI representatives wrote in a Lucy mission description. “These primitive bodies hold vital clues to deciphering the history of our solar system and may even tell us about the origins of organic materials — and even life — on Earth.”
Lucy’s trip to Jupiter’s neighborhood will be a long and circuitous one: The probe will make two different speed-boosting flybys of Earth before heading out toward the giant planet. Then, in April 2025, Lucy will perform its first asteroid flyby, an encounter with a rock in the asteroid belt called (52246) Donaldjohanson.
The Lucy team named that asteroid after paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson, the co-discoverer of the famous “Lucy” fossil — the bones of a 3.2-million-year-old female of the hominin species Australopithecus afarensis. The fossil, in turn, was named after the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” The Lucy mission’s diamond-shaped logo is a nod to the song, Levison said.
After eyeing (52246) Donaldjohanson, the spacecraft will trek to the “leading” Trojan swarm, eventually flying by four different asteroids there from August 2027 to November 2028. After that, Lucy will make its way to the “trailing” group, where it will encounter three space rocks in March 2033.
Lucy won’t linger at any of its asteroid targets.
“We aim almost directly at them, flying within 600 miles [1,000 kilometers] of their surfaces, and Lucy doesn’t slow down for these flybys; it’s moving anywhere between 3 and 5 miles [5 to 8 km] per second relative to the Trojan asteroids,” Keith Noll, Lucy project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said during Tuesday’s news conference.
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