Science

NASA’s daring asteroid Lucy mission is ready for launch

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 am EDT (0934 GMT) aboard a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. You can watch the launch live on Space.com, courtesy of NASA, with coverage starting at 5 am EDT (0900 GMT).

“This team has worked hard to build a spacecraft 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 news conference on Monday. Wednesday (Oct 13). “The work on the spacecraft is complete, it has been powered up, the team is monitoring it and we are ready for launch.”

Related: Lucy’s Mission to Explore 7 Trojan Asteroids Explained by NASA

The launch will kick off a 12-year journey during which the Lucy spacecraft will pass eight different asteroids in hopes of helping scientists understand how our solar system came to be the way 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 Jupiter-orbiting Trojan asteroids, one group about 60 degrees ahead of the planet and the other about 60 degrees behind it, a cosmic gang suited to the largest planet in the solar system.

The $ 981 million Lucy mission will give scientists their first up-close look at any Trojan, but on top of that, the mission is carefully designed to give scientists a taste of the variety of rocky bodies in the region. In the long term, the scientists hope the mission will give them a better idea of ​​how the solar system reached its current layout.

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

“I’m very excited, but also a little sad,” Cathy Olkin, a mission associate principal investigator and planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Colorado, told Space.com shortly after the spacecraft loaded. on the fairing in preparation for launch. “I know you are preparing for your trip and that is what we built it for.”

Lucy will not be riding 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 address a valve issue on the spacecraft.

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

The thruster conversion required removing two solid rocket engines, replacing an avionics box and a few other modifications to support a fairing instead of a capsule, he and ULA chief operating officer John Elbon noted.

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

Lucy’s team hopes to launch the mission as early as possible in the three-week launch period to ensure the spacecraft can continue on its way. Fortunately, the weather forecast looks quite promising for the mission’s approximately 75-minute launch window on Saturday, according to mission launch meteorological officer Jessica Williams of the 45th Weather Squadron, who called it “a beautiful morning. for the launch “during the press conference. .

If the mission fails to launch at its earliest opportunity, things are starting to look a little bleaker – the spacecraft’s Sunday (October 17) opportunity offers only a 50% chance of cooperative weather as high cumulus clouds and the rains threaten; meanwhile, Monday offers a 60% chance of favorable launch weather due to persistent rain and winds.

After launch, Lucy will make two flybys of Earth to adjust her trajectory and send the mission through the solar system. The spacecraft will make its first flyby in April 2025 of a main belt asteroid named Donaldjohanson; the first Trojan flyby will occur in August 2027. Most mission visits will occur in 2027 and 2028; its last planned flyby will take place in March 2033.

However, the trajectory of the ship will continue to carry it between the two swarms of Trojans for about a million years; the first additional loop or the first two can produce additional scientific results if the spacecraft remains in good condition.

First, of course, Lucy has to jump in.

“I feel really good,” Kevin Berry, an aerospace engineer at the Goddard Space Flight Center and leader of the Lucy mission flight dynamics team, told Space.com. “We are in incredible shape and I’m excited to get out there and really navigate things.”

Email Meghan Bartels at mbartels@ or follow her on Twitter @meghanbartels. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook.

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