NASA embarked on a 12-year mission on Saturday to study a cluster of asteroids with the launch of Lucy, a robotic explorer who will meander through the unexplored caverns of deep space to find new clues to the creation of our solar system.
The 5:34 a.m. EST takeoff from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida on top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket was the first stop on Lucy’s four billion mile path through Jupiter’s Orbital Quarter. . There, two swarms of asteroids known as Trojans lurked for billions of years, remnants of debris from the initial formation of the solar system.
The spacecraft was launched before dawn, heading into orbit which will begin its elaborate trajectory. The rocket engine fire preceded a final stage when Lucy’s solar panels must be deployed to make sure it can produce the energy it needs as it sets out on its journey.
Orbiting the sun on either side of Jupiter, the two dark asteroid clouds have only been scrutinized by scientists from afar. Some 10,000 have been identified out of the estimated one million. Lucy will be the first spacecraft to dive straight into the clusters to get close-up views of seven unique Trojan asteroids, plus a tiny asteroid in the Solar System’s main asteroid belt.
Scientists hope the sedan-sized spacecraft will discover evidence of the planets migrating to their current orbits.
What is Lucie?
The Lucy probe, named after the fossilized skeleton of an early hominid ancestor who transformed our understanding of human evolution, will use a suite of scientific instruments to analyze Trojan asteroids – celestial fossils which scientists say of the mission, will transform human knowledge about the formation of the solar system.
Managed by the Southwest Research Institute, with a spacecraft built for NASA by Lockheed Martin, the total cost of the mission is $ 981 million. The spacecraft is about the size of a small car and weighs about 3,300 pounds when filled with fuel.
Its scientific instruments include the TES, or the Lucy Thermal Emission Spectrometer – a telescope designed to scan the surfaces of asteroids for infrared radiation and measure how quickly or slowly the surfaces of space rocks heat up and cool down with the exposure to the heat of the sun. Built by scientists at Arizona State University, the gadget is essentially an advanced thermometer. Analyzing the rate at which asteroids accumulate heat gives scientists an idea of ââhow much dust and rocky material is scattered across their surfaces.
Another device is L’ORRI, or Lucy Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, built by engineers and scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. This telescope will capture black and white images of the surface of asteroids, revealing craters and ridges that have long been plunged into darkness.
Lucy’s third tool, L’Ralph, has both a color camera and an infrared spectrometer. Each instrument is designed to detect the bands of light emitted by ice and minerals that scientists expect to find on the surfaces of asteroids.
What is his mission ?
The spacecraft will spend 12 years tracking down eight asteroids, embarking on a complex path that uses Earth’s gravity three times to launch itself around the sun and through the two swarms of Trojans under the gravitational influence of Jupiter. . Traveling from one side of Jupiter’s orbital path to the other, Lucy will travel approximately four billion kilometers during her primary mission.
What are Trojan asteroids?
Trojan asteroids are swarms of rocky material from the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago. No spacecraft has ever visited the asteroids, which orbit the sun on either side of Jupiter and in the same orbital path, but at a great distance from the giant planet.
Before reaching the Trojans, it will fly over an asteroid in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter named after Donald Johanson, the scientist who discovered Lucy’s skeleton. The spacecraft will first visit 52246 Donaldjohanson in April 2025 and then proceed to its major destinations.
Lucy will perform six flyovers of the Trojan asteroids, one of which has a small moon, which will result in the visit of seven Trojans. The observations should give scientists a diverse set of asteroid material to analyze on Earth.
What do scientists hope to learn from the Lucy mission?
The Trojan asteroids were hidden in the dark and almost impossible to analyze. Scientists expect them to be an unexplored data source for testing theoretical models of how the solar system was formed and how the planets ended up in their current orbits around the sun.
What other deep space missions does NASA have soon?
Two more asteroid missions will eventually follow Lucy, with:
DART: Launched in November, NASA’s DART (Double Asteroid Redirect Test) mission involves crashing a spaceship onto an asteroid to cause it to deviate from its path. The mission is testing a method of planetary defense that could one day prove useful should an asteroid threaten Earth.
James Webb Space Telescope: A roughly $ 10 billion follow-up to NASA’s famous Hubble Telescope, the Webb is finally set to launch in December. He will study planets orbiting distant stars and search for light from the first galaxies that formed after the Big Bang.
Artemis-1: NASA is aiming in the coming months to launch an unmanned Orion astronaut capsule on top of its massive Space Launch System rocket around the moon and back. This is the first mission in the agency’s Artemis program, which aims to one day send American astronauts back to the moon.
Psyche: Next year, NASA is due to send a probe to Psyche, a metallic asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter made of nickel and iron that looks like the core of a first planetary body. Like the asteroids in Lucy’s mission, it could provide clues to the formation of our solar system.
Europa Clipper: In 2024, NASA plans to send a spacecraft to Jupiter to scan the icy moon Europa and determine if its underground ocean could harbor life.