Science

A NASA asteroid explorer took stunning pictures of the Earth and Moon before heading to the Jupiter Trojans.

NASA’s Lucy mission this month performed the first of three planned slingshot maneuvers around Earth in preparation for studying Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, but the spacecraft made sure to take some stunning photos of the Earth and Moon before darting off into deep space.

The pictures taken on October 13 and 15, when Lucy began her rendezvous with the Earth to increase speed using gravity on October 16, are more functional than a couple of simple pictures. The images were taken to help calibrate the Lucy Terminal Tracking Camera (T2CAM) system, which has two identical cameras that the spacecraft will use to pinpoint and track target asteroids as it whizzes by at high speeds.

The first image, taken on October 13, highlights the incredible distance between the Earth and the Moon. At the time, the two bodies sitting on opposite edges of the frame were about 890,000 miles (1.4 million kilometers) away from Lucy, according to a NASA statement. Mission personnel also planned for the spacecraft to photograph the Moon on its return journey into deep space.

See also: NASA asteroid explorer Lucy spotted a vanishing moon during a lunar eclipse

The second photo, taken two days later, is a close-up of the Earth as Lucy approaches, taken from approximately 380,000 miles (620,000 km) away. In the image, Hadar in Ethiopia is barely visible on the far left of the planet, giving Lucy (and us) a cosmic view of where the 3.2-million-year-old human ancestor fossil for which the Mission was discovered is located.

Lucy will make a total of three flybys of Earth, using Earth’s gravity on approach to accelerate to begin a multi-year journey to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids. During the first flyby, Lucy was only 220 miles (350 km) from the surface of the Earth – less altitude than the International Space Station and many satellites, and close enough for keen skywatchers to spot her.

View of Earth from the Lucy spacecraft on October 15, 2022. Ethiopia, where the 3.2-million-year-old human ancestor for whom the spacecraft is named, is barely visible on the far left of the globe. (Image credit: NASA/Goddard/SwRI)

Lucy will be the first spacecraft to visit Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, so named because they orbit the Sun at the same distance as Jupiter, both in front of and behind the planet. They occupy two of Jupiter’s five Lagrange points, the only places where a stable orbit is possible so close to the gas giant.

During her 12-year mission, Lucy will fly past nine asteroids, including one in the main asteroid belt, to study their composition, density and diversity. While this is an impressive number of asteroids to study at one time, up to 12,000 Trojan asteroids orbit Jupiter, according to the International Astronomical Union. Scientists believe these rocks are 4 billion-year-old “fossils” left over from the formation of the solar system.

You can find John on Twitter at @thisdotjohn. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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