NASA is starting preparations to launch a new mission to the stars… or to the asteroids, to be exact.
The mission – named Lucy – will for the first time explore Trojan asteroids that share an orbit with the planet Jupiter and are leftovers of our early solar system. These small asteroids form two ‘swarms’ of asteroids, with some at the front and others behind Jupiter while it orbits the Sun. These orbits are grouped around Lagrange Places, which are stable points of gravitational equilibrium.
“The Trojan Asteroids are leftovers from the early days of our solar system, effectively the fossils of planet formation,” said scientist Hal Levison.
Currently, the spacecraft is in a cleanroom in NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida, after arriving on Friday, 30 July. The spacecraft will be prepared, tested and fueled before it is launched.
Seven years in the making, this spacecraft will launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. It has a 23-day launch period that begins from 16 October.
The spacecraft has been designed and built by Lockheed Martin Space at its facility in Littleton, Colorado.
“It takes a lot of coordination and careful planning to get this spacecraft to its launch site, and I’m very proud of the team who worked so tirelessly through a global pandemic to get us to this moment,” said Rich Lipe, Lucy program manager at Lockheed Martin.
Lucy is the 13th mission in NASA’s Discovery Program. This program first began in 1992, and it gives NASA scientists and engineers the chance to form teams and develop interesting planetary research missions. They all aim to expand our understanding of the solar system.
Psyche is another asteroid mission, part of the Discovery program, that NASA is working on. A spacecraft will travel to 16 Psyche, which is a giant, metal-rich asteroid.
The mission gets its name from the 3.2-million-year-old ape fossil found in 1974, in Ethiopia. It was the first Australopithecus afarensis skeleton ever found, though only about 40 percent of the skeleton is complete. Lucy was a hominid and her bones show evidence of her being a bipedal locomotion, or having the ability to walk upright.
The Lucy spacecraft will be no more than 14 metres long. It has massive solar panels that will power the spaceship as it flies out to Jupiter’s orbit. Each panel is over seven metres in diameter. The much smaller spacecraft body will house all of the equipment, as well as the two-metre, high-strength antenna required for communication with Earth.
The spacecraft has a mission life of 12 years and during that time, it will travel to eight different asteroids — a Main Belt asteroid and seven Trojans.
The science objectives of the mission are as follow:
These asteroids form two separate groups and exist both ahead of and behind Jupiter. They are divided into three groups – C-, P- and D-types.
According to NASA, the P- and D-type Trojans asteroids are similar to those found in the Kuiper Belt. The C-types are found mostly in the outer parts of the Main Belt of asteroids, between Mars and Jupiter.
These asteroids have an abundance of dark carbon compounds and are probably rich in water and other volatile substances.
This mission will give us our first view of the Trojan asteroids that are thought to be ‘time capsules’ from the birth of our solar system, some four billion years ago. They are supposed to be ‘remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets.’
Lucy has four instruments that will allow it to carry out remote-sensing science. They are: