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NASA is starting preparations to begin a new mission on stars … or asteroids.

The mission – called Lucy – explores for the first time Trojan asteroids that have the same orbit as the planet Jupiter and are remnants of our early solar system. These small asteroids form two clusters of asteroids, some in front and others behind Jupiter as it orbits the sun. These orbits are grouped around Lagrange Places, which are stable centers of gravity balance.

The artist's perception of the Lucy spacecraft in the Trojan asteroid.  Photo: NASA

The artist’s perception of the Lucy spacecraft in the Trojan asteroid. Photo: NASA

“Trojan asteroids are residues from the early days of our solar system, practically fossils of planetary formation,” said scientist Hal Levison.

The spacecraft is currently in a clean state at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center (KSC) in Florida when it arrives on Friday, July 30th. The spacecraft is prepared, tested and fueled before it is launched.

For seven years, this spacecraft will launch from Cape Canaveral Space Station. It has a 23-day launch period starting October 16th.

The spacecraft was designed and built by Lockheed Martin Space at its facility in Littleton, Colorado.

“Getting this spacecraft to its launch site requires a lot of coordination and careful planning, and I’m very proud of the team that worked so tirelessly through the global pandemic to get us to this point,” said Rich Lipe, Lucy Program Director at Lockheed Martin.

About the task

Lucy is on the 13th mission in NASA’s Discovery Program. This program first began in 1992 and allows NASA scientists and engineers to form teams and develop interesting planetary research operations. The goal of all of them is to expand our understanding of the solar system.

Psyche is another asteroid mission, part of NASA’s Discovery program. The spaceship travels to 16 Psychee, a giant, metal-rich asteroid.

The mission takes its name from the 3.2 million-year-old monkey fossil discovered in 1974 in Ethiopia. It was the first skeleton of Australopithecus afarensis ever discovered, although only about 40 percent of the skeleton is complete. Lucy was a hominide and her bones show evidence that she had bipedal movement or the ability to walk in an upright position.

The length of the Lucy spacecraft is up to 14 meters. It has massive solar panels that use the spacecraft as it flies into Jupiter’s orbit. Each panel is more than seven meters in diameter. The much smaller spacecraft hull includes all the equipment as well as a two-meter high-strength antenna needed to communicate with Earth.

The official patch for the Lucy mission.  Photo: NASA

The official patch for the Lucy mission. Photo: NASA

The spacecraft has a lifespan of 12 years, during which time it travels to eight different asteroids – a main-belt asteroid and seven Trojans.

The scientific objectives of the task are as follows:

  • Surfaceology – Lucy maps the albedo, shape, crater, and size frequency distributions, determines the structure of the shell, and the nature of stratification, and determines the relative ages of the surface units.
  • Surface Color and Composition – Lucy maps the surface color, composition, and regolithic properties of a Trojan asteroid and determines the distribution of minerals, ice creams, and organic species.
  • Interiors and Bulk Properties – Lucy determines masses and densities and examines surface composition through the excavation of craters, cracks, wipes and susceptible bedding.
  • Satellites and Rings – Lucy searches for tires and satellites for Trojan asteroids.

About Trojan Asteroids

These asteroids form two distinct groups and exist both in front of and behind Jupiter. They are divided into three groups – C, P and D types.

According to NASA, P- and D-type Trojan asteroids are similar to those in the Kuiper belt. C-types are mostly found in the outer parts of the main belt of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter.

This diagram illustrates Lucy's orbit.  The spacecraft’s path (green) is shown in a frame of reference in which Jupiter stays in place, making the orbit its saline.  Following Lucy’s launch in October 2021, Lucy has two airlines flying close to Earth before it encounters Trojan destinations.  In the L4 cloud, Lucy flies (3548) Eurybates (white) and its satellite, (15094) Polymele (pink), (11351) Leucus (red) and (21900) Orus (red) from 2027-2028.  After diving past Earth again, Lucy visits the L5 cloud and encounters (617) the Patroclus-Menoetius binary (pink) in 2033. As a bonus, in 2025 on her way to L4, Lucy flies a small main belt asteroid, (52246) Donaldjohanson (white), named after Lucy's fossil discoverer.  Flying in the Patroclus-Menoetius binary in 2033, Lucy continues cycling between two Trojan clouds every six years.  Scope: Southwest Research Institute

This diagram illustrates Lucy’s orbit. The spacecraft’s path (green) is shown in a frame of reference in which Jupiter remains stationary. Scope: Southwestern Research Institute

These asteroids are rich in dark carbon compounds and probably rich in water and other volatile substances.

This mission gives us our first insight into Trojan asteroids that are believed to be “time capsules” after the birth of our solar system, about four billion years ago. They are assumed to be “remnants of the original material that formed the outer planets.”

About Lucy’s instruments

Lucy has four tools that allow it to conduct remote sensing research. They are:

  • L’Ralph is Lucy’s vibration imaging device and infrared spectrometer.
  • LEISA allows us to search for absorption lines that act as fingerprints for various silicates, ice, and organic matter likely to be on the surface of Trojan asteroids. MVIC takes color images of Trojan asteroid targets and helps determine their activity.
  • L’LORRI, Long Range Reconnaissance Imager is a prominent graph of high spatial resolution. This camera provides the most detailed images of the Trojan surface.
  • L’TES is a thermal spectrometer. With this infrared spectrometer, the Lucy team can learn much more about the properties of Trojans, such as their thermal inertia, how well bodies retain heat, which teaches us about the composition and structure of the material on the surface of asteroids.
  • Lucy’s High Gain antenna determines the masses of objects using Doppler transmission of a radio signal. It uses its terminal tracking camera (T2CAM) to take widescreen images of asteroids to better constrain asteroid shapes.

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