NASA’s daring mission to asteroid Lucy is ready to go


NASA’s latest asteroid mission, a spacecraft targeting space rocks orbiting in front of and behind Jupiter, is ready to begin its journey.

Called Lucy, the mission is scheduled to launch on Saturday, October 16 at 5:34 a.m. EDT (9:34 a.m. GMT) aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral space station in Florida. You can watch the launch live on Space.com courtesy of NASA, with coverage starting at 5:00 a.m. EDT (09:00 GMT).

“This team has put in so much work to build a spaceship that is truly a work of art,” said Donya Douglas-Bradshaw, Lucy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Maryland, during a press conference held on Wednesday (October 13). “The work of the spacecraft is done, it has been powered up, the team is watching it and we are ready to take off.”

Related: The Lucy mission to explore 7 Trojan asteroids explained by NASA

The launch will kick off a 12-year journey in which the Lucy spacecraft will pass eight different asteroids in the hope of helping scientists understand how our solar system became what it is today.

Most of these asteroids belong to a category called Trojans, which are trapped in gravitationally stable points in a planet’s orbit. Lucy’s targets are Trojan asteroids that orbit with Jupiter, one group about 60 degrees in front of the planet and the other about 60 degrees behind, a cosmic group worthy of the largest planet in the solar system.

The $ 981 million Lucy Mission will give scientists their very first close-up of a Trojan horse, but on top of that, the mission is carefully designed to give scientists a taste of the range of rocky bodies in the region. In the long run, scientists hope the mission will give them a better idea of ​​how the solar system reached its current arrangement.

But before Lucy can tackle a science, she must say goodbye to Earth and the humans who built it.

“I’m really excited, but I’m also a little sad,” Cathy Olkin, deputy principal researcher for the mission and planetologist at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Colorado, told Space.com shortly after loading the spacecraft. spatial. in the fairing for launch. “I know he’s getting ready for his trip and that’s what we built him for.”

Lucy won’t quite be piloting the rocket that the United launch alliance (ULA) had in mind. The company was also due to launch an unmanned test flight dubbed OFT-2 from Boeing’s Starliner capsule to the International Space Station this summer, but Boeing had to withdraw from the launch pad to solve a valve problem in the spaceship.

NASA’s Lucy spacecraft was encapsulated in its rocket fairing on September 30, 2021, in preparation for launch. (Image credit: NASA / Ben Smegelsky)

“We were able to make it a positive point in that we were able to use OFT[-2] boost and convert it for use for Lucy, ”said Omar Baez, launch director for Lucy at NASA’s Launch Services Program at Kennedy Space Center in Florida, during the press conference.

The booster conversion required the removal of two powder rocket engines, the replacement of an avionics box and a few other modifications to support a fairing in place of a capsule, noted he and the COO of ULA, John Elbon.

“I think overall it ended in a situation that worked really well,” Elbon said of the change.

Lucy’s team hope to launch the mission as early as possible during the three-week launch period to ensure the spacecraft can get underway. Fortunately, the weather forecast looks pretty promising for the mission’s roughly 75-minute launch window on Saturday, according to mission launch weather officer Jessica Williams of 45 Weather Squadron, who called it a “beautiful morning.” for the launch ”at the press conference. .

If the mission can’t be launched on its first opportunity, things start to look a little darker: The spaceship opportunity on Sunday (October 17) only offers a 50% chance of cooperative weather as the large cumulus clouds and rain showers threaten; Meanwhile, Monday offers a 60% chance of favorable weather conditions for launch due to the downpours and persistent winds.

After launch, Lucy will fly over Earth twice to adjust her trajectory and send the mission through the solar system. The spacecraft will perform its first flyby in April 2025, from a main belt asteroid called Donaldjohanson; Trojan’s first flyby will take place in August 2027. Most mission visits will take place in 2027 and 2028; its last scheduled flight will take place in March 2033.

However, the trajectory of the spacecraft will continue to transport it between the two Trojan swarms for about a million years; the first or the first two additional loops may yield additional scientific results if the spacecraft remains in good condition.

First, of course, Lucy has to get started.

“I feel really good,” Kevin Berry, aerospace engineer at Goddard Space Flight Center and flight dynamics team leader for the Lucy mission, told Space.com. “We’re in amazing shape and I’m just excited to go out there and actually navigate things.”

Email Meghan Bartels at [email protected] or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.


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