Weather conditions were more than 90% favorable Saturday morning when the Lucy mission lifted off from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station at 5:34 a.m. ET. The launch team confirmed that they received a signal from the spacecraft confirming it was safe and sound just after 7 a.m. ET and that Lucy successfully deployed its impressive solar arrays.
Lucy will embark on a 12-year mission to explore Jupiter’s swarm of Trojan asteroids that have never been seen. Trojan asteroids, which borrow their name from Greek mythology, orbit the Sun in two clusters – one that is ahead of Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, and the other that is behind it.
So far, our only glimpses of Trojan have been artist renderings or animations. Lucy will provide the first high-resolution images of what these asteroids look like.
Lucy is the first spacecraft designed to visit and observe these asteroids, the remnants of the early days of our solar system. The mission will help researchers learn more about how the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago. Lucy’s 12-year mission could also help scientists learn more about how our planets ended up at their current locations.
“Lucy has science at its center and how it will talk to us about the Trojans,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.
“Observing them is very important because these asteroids tell us about a chapter in their story — in this case, the history of when the outer planets in the Solar System were forming,” Zurbuchen said. “I’m still amazed by the fact that if you pick up a rock or you look at one of those planetary bodies and you add science to it, it turns into a history book.”
Mysterious Asteroids Attack
There are about 7,000 Trojan asteroids, and the largest are 160 miles (250 kilometers). Asteroids also represent matter left over after the formation of the giant planets in our solar system, including Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Even though they share an orbit with Jupiter, asteroids are still very far from the planet – according to NASA, Jupiter is almost as far from the Sun.
The spacecraft is set to fly by an asteroid in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and then it will detect seven Trojans. During her mission, Lucy will return to Earth orbit three separate times thanks to a gravity assist that can catapult it onto the right track. This would make Lucy the first spacecraft to travel to Jupiter and return to Earth.
Trojans are “held there by the gravitational effects of Jupiter and the Sun, so if you put an object early in the history of the Solar System, it’s been frozen forever,” said Hal Levison, principal investigator of the Lucy mission. ” Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “These things are actually fossils from which the planets formed.”
Both the fossil and the mission are an allusion to the Beatles’ tune “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, which is why the Lucy Mission logo includes a diamond.
In 12 years, Lucy will travel about 4 billion miles (6.4 billion kilometers) at a speed of about 400,000 mph (17,881.6 meters per second).
Lucy will visit these asteroids in particular, all named after heroes you might recognize from Homer’s “The Iliad”: Eurybates, Quetta, Polymel, Lucas, Orus, Patroclus, and Menoetius.
Euribetes was chosen because it is the largest remnant of an ancient giant collision, meaning it could provide a look at what’s inside an asteroid. Observations made using the Hubble Space Telescope found that the small asteroid Quetta is a satellite of Euribetes.
Each asteroid Lucy will differ in size and color.
“One of the really amazing things about Trojans when we started studying them from the ground up is how different they are from each other,” Levison said. “So if you want to understand what this population is telling us about how the planets formed, you need to understand that diversity and that’s what Lucy intended.”
a feat of engineering
The Lucy spacecraft is over 46 feet (14 m) from tip to tip, mainly due to its massive solar panels – each about the width of a school bus – designed to maintain a power supply to the spacecraft’s instruments. has gone. But Lucy also has fuel to help her perform some efficient maneuvers on her way to asteroids.
It took a team of more than 500 engineers and scientists to conceptualize and build the spacecraft, said Lucy project manager Donya Douglas-Bradshaw of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
“Lucy will be NASA’s first mission to travel so far from the Sun without nuclear power,” said Joan Salute, associate director of flight programs in NASA’s Planetary Science Division. To generate enough energy, Lucy has two very large spherical solar arrays that open up like Chinese fans. These open autonomously and simultaneously, and that happens about an hour after launch.”
Lucy will use three science instruments to study the asteroids, including color and black and white cameras, a thermometer and an infrared imaging spectrometer to determine the composition of the asteroid’s surface material. The spacecraft will communicate with Earth using its antennae, which can also be used to help determine the mass of asteroids.
The instruments will enable the science team to discover satellites around these asteroids as well as craters on their surfaces, which could help determine the asteroids’ origin and evolution along with their ages.
After the Lucy mission is over, the team plans to propose an extended mission to detect more Trojans. The spacecraft will remain in a stable orbit that will rediscover its path of exploration between Earth and Jupiter, and will have no chance of colliding for more than 100,000 years. Eventually, if the orbit becomes unstable, it will most likely go on a disastrous mission to the Sun or exit our solar system.
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