Science

NASA’s record-breaking asteroid Lucy mission gears up for October launch

NASA’s Lucy asteroid probe is scheduled to begin its 12-year space odyssey next month.

Lucy is scheduled to launch onto a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on October 16. twelve years.

“We are visiting more asteroids than any other spacecraft in history,” Lucy’s principal investigator Hal Levison of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado, said during a news conference on Tuesday (September 28).

“We will also overcome another [record]”We are farther from the sun than any other solar-powered spacecraft in history,” Levison added.

Lucy will take the corona away from NASA’s Juno probe, which has been orbiting Jupiter since July 2016.

Related: Photos of Asteroids in Deep Space

Studying Trojan Asteroids

Lucy’s main science targets are Trojan asteroids, space rocks that revolve around the sun in the orbit of Jupiter. There are two groups of Trojans: one that “guides” Jupiter around our star and another that “follows” the giant planet.

Astronomers have cataloged more than 7,000 Trojans to date, but the total population of the space rocks is much larger, perhaps even rivaling that of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Levison said. Lucy will be the first spacecraft to take a close look at any Trojan, and her observations could be revealing.

“Models of planet formation and evolution suggest that Trojan asteroids are likely remnants[s] of the same primordial material that formed the outer planets and thus serve as time capsules since the birth of our solar system more than 4 billion years ago, “wrote the SwRI representatives in a description of Lucy’s mission. . ” These primitive bodies contain vital clues to deciphering the history of our solar system and can even tell us about the origins of organic materials, and even life, on Earth. “

Lucy’s journey to the Jupiter neighborhood will be long and winding: the probe will make two different flybys of Earth to increase speed before heading towards the giant planet. Then, in April 2025, Lucy will make her first asteroid flyby, an encounter with a rock in the asteroid belt called (52246) Donaldjohanson.

Lucy’s team named that asteroid after paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson, the co-discoverer of the famous fossil “Lucy,” the bones of a 3.2 million-year-old female of the hominin species Australopithecus afarensis. The fossil, in turn, got its name from the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. Mission Lucy’s diamond-shaped logo is a nod to the song, Levison said.

After observing (52246) Donaldjohanson, the spacecraft will travel to the swarm of “leading” Trojans, eventually flying through four different asteroids there from August 2027 to November 2028. After that, Lucy will head to the “follow-up” group. “, where you will encounter three space rocks in March 2033.

Lucy won’t linger on any of her asteroid targets.

“We aimed almost directly at them, flying less than 600 miles [1,000 kilometers] of their surfaces, and Lucy does not slow down for these flybys; moves anywhere between 3 and 5 miles [5 to 8 km] per second relative to Trojan asteroids, “said Keith Noll, Lucy project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, during Tuesday’s press conference.

“So encounters happen quickly, and the best data is collected in just a few hours near the closest approach,” Noll said.

That data, collected by several different cameras and spectrometers, will teach the mission team about the composition, structure and activity of the space rock targets.

NASA’s total funding commitment for Lucy is $ 981.1 million, said Lori Glaze, chief of the agency’s Planetary Sciences Division, during Tuesday’s press conference. That money will carry Lucy to the end of her main mission in 2033.

The United Launch Alliance Centaur stage for NASA's Lucy mission is lifted by crane to the Vertical Integration Facility near Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Thursday, September 16, 2021. The Lucy spacecraft is scheduled to launch no sooner.  than on Saturday October 16 on a ULA Atlas V 401 rocket.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Centaur stage for NASA’s Lucy mission is lifted by crane to the Vertical Integration Facility near Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Thursday. September 16, 2021. The Lucy spacecraft is scheduled to launch no earlier than Saturday October 16 on a ULA Atlas V 401 rocket. (Image credit: NASA / Kim Shiflett)

Getting ready for take off

For the past eight weeks, Lucy’s team has been preparing the spacecraft for flight at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, which is next to the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Engineers and technicians have achieved some important milestones during this stretch, including installing Lucy’s high-gain antenna and filling her fuel tanks.

“There’s been a lot of hands-on work,” Donya Douglas-Bradshaw, Lucy’s project manager at NASA Goddard, said in a statement. “This summer has passed so quickly; it’s hard to believe that we are almost at launch.”

The next few weeks will also be busy. For example, the team will soon encapsulate Lucy in her payload fairing, the shell that will protect the spacecraft during launch. In early October, the encapsulated probe will be transported to Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, where it will be stacked atop its Atlas V rocket ahead of its scheduled October 16 launch.

However, a possible government shutdown looms on top of all these preparations: Federal government funding will expire on Thursday (September 30) unless Capitol lawmakers can reach some kind of tax deal.

Glaze said NASA is working to secure an exception that would allow Lucy’s team to continue preparing for the launch even if the federal government closes within days.

“The application process is underway; it has not yet been completed,” Glaze said. “We are very attentive to what is happening with Congress and with the budget.”

That said, “everything is moving forward with the launch,” he added.

Mike Wall is the author of “Out There” (Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book about the search for extraterrestrial life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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