NASA’s next asteroid-bound mission, which will investigate the origins of our solar system, is almost set to take off from the launch pad.
The Lucy spacecraft is aiming for a Saturday launch window, which will allow it to reach orbit (Oct. 16). After taking off, the spacecraft will go on a 12-year trip to the outer solar system, where it will pay a visit to half a dozen old “Trojan” asteroids that circle in the same orbit as the planet Jupiter, among other destinations.
Several world firsts will be achieved during this ambitious journey – Lucy will be the first spacecraft to visit asteroids in this area and the first spacecraft to conduct a flyby of Earth from beyond the solar system. Furthermore, the mission will provide new information to the scientific community’s quest to understand more about the origins of our universe.
“No other space mission in history has been launched to as many different destinations in independent orbits around our sun,” NASA said in a mission description. “Lucy will show us, for the first time, the diversity of the primordial bodies that built the planets.”
In honor of a renowned early australopithecine (humanoid) skeleton that is about 3.2 million years old, Lucy is named after the discovery of the skeleton, which has long been regarded as a watershed moment in the study of human evolution. Lucy’s skeleton was named after the character Lucy from the 1967 Beatles song, “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” which was played during the 1974 expedition that discovered the skeleton and to which excavators danced, according to a NASA news release from 2017 announcing the discovery of Lucy.
NASA took inspiration for the project’s name from the Lucy skeleton, which the agency believes symbolizes the birth of humankind. The mission, which will explore the origins of our solar system, will be named after the Lucy skeleton.
NASA stated in a 2017 statement that “these asteroids are truly like diamonds in the sky” when it comes to their scientific value in understanding how the giant planets formed and the solar system evolved. Harold Levison, the principal investigator of Lucy at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), said in the same statement that “these asteroids are like diamonds in the sky.” Levison was the one who came up with the idea of calling the expedition after the skeleton in question.
Lucy’s twelve-year voyage will take her to at least eight distinct asteroids, as well as three visits to Earth (two before going to the outer solar system and one after) in order to gain momentum via gravitational assistance. There will only be one tiny world in the “main belt” of asteroids between Mars and Jupiter, while the other seven will be Trojan asteroids, which will be situated between Mars and Jupiter. Particularly noteworthy is that four of the seven Trojans are paired, enabling Lucy to see two asteroids at the same time on each of those specific trips.
The mission will look for a variety of different types of asteroid bodies, including C-type (chondrite, a common ancient asteroid composed of clay and silicate), D-type (asteroids with low albedos or reflectivity, which may contain organic molecules), and P-type (asteroids with high albedos or reflectivity, which may contain organic molecules) (more asteroids with low albedos that may also be rich in organics, although we have no samples yet on Earth to confirm this).
Asteroid targets for Lucy include the pairs 52246 Donaldjohanson and 3547 Eurybates and its tiny satellite Queta, 15094 Polymele and 11351 Leucus, 21900 Orus, and the binary 617 Patroclus/Menoetius, which are listed in alphabetical order. More information on each asteroid’s nature, size, and orbit may be found on Lucy’s website.
In a mission description, NASA officials stated that the dark-red P- and D-type Trojans “resemble those found in the Kuiper Belt of icy bodies that extends beyond the orbit of Neptune.” The Kuiper Belt is a collection of frozen things that extends beyond the orbit of Neptune. “The C-type asteroids are found mostly in the outer reaches of the main belt of asteroids, between Mars and Jupiter, where they are more numerous. According to popular belief, all of the Trojans have a high concentration of black carbon compounds. They are likely to be rich in water and other volatile chemicals under a layer of dust that acts as an insulator.”
Many instruments will be carried by the spacecraft, including a color visible imager to determine composition; a long-range reconnaissance imager to collect high-resolution images of each asteroid’s surface; a thermal emission spectrometer to investigate how the Trojans retain heat; a terminal-tracking camera to obtain wide-field images of the asteroids to learn more about their shapes; and a high-gain antenna to determine the masses of each of these small worlds.
At about 4.5 billion years old, asteroids and comets are the remnants of the tiny objects left behind after the formation of our solar system. The study of the composition, orbits, and other dynamics of these small planets provides cosmologists with additional information about how our neighborhood came into being.
Additionally, Lucy will build on a number of recent missions that have dealt with asteroids, such as NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, which is currently en route to Earth with a sample from the asteroid Bennu, and Japan’s Hayabusa2 mission, which will return to Earth in late 2020 with dust from the asteroid Ryugu. Near-Earth asteroids are responsible for both of those discoveries; combining this type of space rock with Lucy’s observations of the Trojans may provide scientists with a new avenue for comprehending the solar system.