Science & Nature

NASA’s asteroid spacecraft Lucy launches this week on bold 12-year mission

NASA's Lucy spacecraft was encapsulated into its rocket fairing on Sept. 30, 2021, in preparation for launch.



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

NASA’s subsequent asteroid-bound mission to discover the earliest days of our photo voltaic system is sort of able to launch.

The Lucy spacecraft is concentrating on a launch window that opens on Saturday (Oct. 16). After blastoff, the spacecraft will make a 12-year journey to the outer photo voltaic system, the place it’ll go to half a dozen historic “Trojan” asteroids that orbit in the identical path because the planet Jupiter.

This bold mission will embrace a lot of firsts — Lucy would be the first spacecraft to go to asteroids on this area and the primary to make a flyby of Earth from the outer photo voltaic system. Moreover, the mission will add recent information as scientists search to be taught extra about our universe’s early historical past.

“No different house mission in historical past has been launched to as many alternative locations in unbiased orbits round our solar,” NASA stated in a mission description. “Lucy will present us, for the primary time, the range of the primordial our bodies that constructed the planets.”

Related: Lucy mission to discover 7 trojan asteroids defined by NASA

Lucy is known as after a well-known early australopithecine (humanoid) skeleton that’s roughly 3.2 million years previous, the invention of which has lengthy been hailed as a keystone in understanding human evolution. The skeleton itself was named after the Lucy within the 1967 Beatles tune, “Lucy within the Sky With Diamonds,” a tune to which excavators danced in the course of the 1974 expedition that uncovered the skeleton, NASA stated in a 2017 press launch in regards to the Lucy mission.

NASA drew inspiration from the Lucy skeleton, which to the company represents the start of people, in naming a mission that goals to show us extra in regards to the beginnings of our photo voltaic system. 

“These asteroids actually are like diamonds within the sky by way of their scientific worth for understanding how the enormous planets shaped and the photo voltaic system advanced,” Harold Levison, principal investigator of Lucy on the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), stated in a 2017 NASA assertion. Levison was the one who advised naming the mission after the skeleton.

Lucy’s dozen-year journey will take it to not less than eight completely different asteroids, with three revisits to Earth (two earlier than heading to the outer photo voltaic system, and one after) to select up velocity by gravity assists. One small world will probably be positioned within the “predominant belt” of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, whereas the opposite seven are Trojans. Notably, 4 of the seven Trojans are paired up, permitting Lucy to view two asteroids concurrently with every of these explicit visits.

The mission will goal a spread of completely different sorts of asteroid our bodies: C-type (chondrite, frequent historic asteroids made from clay and silicate), D-type (asteroids with low albedos or reflectivity, which can be wealthy in natural molecules) and P-type (extra asteroids with low albedos that will even be wealthy in organics, though we now have no samples but on Earth to substantiate this).

An artist's depiction of NASA's Lucy spacecraft swinging past a Trojan asteroid.

An artist’s depiction of NASA’s Lucy spacecraft swinging previous a Trojan asteroid. (Image credit score: Southwest Research Institute)

In order, Lucy’s deliberate asteroid targets are 52246 Donaldjohanson, 3547 Eurybates and its small satellite tv for pc Queta, 15094 Polymele, 11351 Leucus, 21900 Orus and the binary 617 Patroclus/Menoetius. Lucy’s web site has extra particulars about every asteroid’s kind, dimension and orbit.

“The dark-red P- and D-type Trojans resemble these discovered within the Kuiper Belt of icy our bodies that extends past the orbit of Neptune,” NASA officers wrote in the mission description. “The C-types are discovered principally within the outer elements of the principle belt of asteroids, between Mars and Jupiter. All of the Trojans are regarded as considerable in darkish carbon compounds. Below an insulating blanket of mud, they’re in all probability wealthy in water and different risky substances.”

Flying on Lucy will probably be a number of devices: a colour seen imager to find out composition; a long-range reconnaissance imager to select up high-resolution photos of every asteroid’s floor; a thermal emission spectrometer to look at how the Trojans retain warmth; a terminal-tracking digital camera to acquire wide-field photos of the asteroids to be taught extra about their shapes; and a high-gain antenna to find out the plenty of every of those small worlds.

Asteroids and comets symbolize the leftover small objects from when our photo voltaic system shaped, roughly 4.5 billion years in the past. Studying the make-up, orbits and different dynamics of those little worlds inform cosmologists extra about how our neighborhood got here to be.

Lucy can even construct on quite a few current missions regarding asteroids, together with NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission that’s at present headed for Earth with a pattern from asteroid Bennu and Japan’s Hayabusa2 that returned to Earth in late 2020 with mud from asteroid Ryugu. Both of these objects are near-Earth asteroids, and evaluating this class of house rock with Lucy’s observations of the Trojans could give scientists a brand new path to understanding the photo voltaic system.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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Elizabeth Howell

Elizabeth Howell is a contributing author for Space.com who is likely one of the few Canadian journalists to report repeatedly on house exploration. She is the creator or co-author of a number of books on house exploration. Elizabeth holds a Ph.D. from the University of North Dakota in Space Studies, and an M.Sc. from the identical division. She additionally holds a bachelor of journalism diploma from Carleton University in Canada, the place she started her space-writing profession in 2004. Besides writing, Elizabeth teaches communications on the college and neighborhood school stage, and for presidency coaching faculties. To see her newest tasks, observe Elizabeth on Twitter at @howellspace.

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