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

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

Lucy is expected to be launched on top of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral Space Force station in Florida on October 16. Liftoff will launch a historic mission that will see Lucy come close to eight different space rocks over the next dozen years.

“We visit more asteroids than any other spacecraft in history, “Lucy’s principal investigator Hal Levison of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colo., said at a press conference Tuesday (Sept. 28).

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

Lucy will win the NASA distance crown Juno probe, which has been orbiting Jupiter since July 2016.

Related: Photos of asteroids in deep space

Studying Trojan asteroids

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

Astronomers have documented over 7,000 Trojans to date, but the total population of space rocks is much higher, perhaps rivaling even that of the major Asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, Levison said. Lucy will be the first spacecraft to see a Trojan horse up close, and her sightings could be revealing.

“Models of planetary formation and evolution suggest 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 over 4 billion years ago, ”SwRI representatives wrote in a Description of Lucie’s mission. “These primitive bodies hold essential clues to deciphering the history of our solar system and can even tell us about the origins of organic matter – and even life – on Earth.”

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

Lucy’s team named this 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, was named after the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”. The diamond-shaped Mission Lucy logo is a nod to the song, Levison said.

After observing (52246) Donaldjohanson, the spacecraft will head towards the “main” swarm of Trojans, eventually flying over four different asteroids there from August 2027 to November 2028. After that, Lucy will head to the “next” group. , where it will encounter three space rocks in March 2033.

Lucy will not dwell on any of her asteroid targets.

“We aim almost directly at them, flying within 600 miles [1,000 kilometers] of their surfaces, and Lucy does not slow down for these overflights; it travels anywhere between 3 and 5 miles [5 to 8 km] per second compared to Trojan asteroids“Keith Noll, Project Lucy scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md., said in Tuesday’s press conference.

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

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

NASA’s total financial commitment to Lucy stands at $ 981.1 million, Lori Glaze, head of the agency’s planetary science division, told Tuesday’s press conference. This money will accompany Lucy until the end of her main mission in 2033.

United Launch Alliance's Centaur stage for NASA's Lucy mission is lifted by a crane in the vertical integration facility near Space Launch Complex 41 of the Cape Canaveral Space Station in Florida on Thursday, September 16, 2021 The launch of the Lucy spacecraft is not scheduled until Saturday, October 16 on a ULA Atlas V 401 rocket.

The United Launch Alliance’s (ULA) Centaur stage for NASA’s Lucy mission is lifted by a crane in the Vertical Integration Facility near Space Launch Complex 41 at the Cape Canaveral Space Station in Florida on Thursday, September 16, 2021. The Lucy spacecraft should launch Saturday, October 16 at the earliest on a ULA Atlas V 401 rocket. (Image credit: NASA / Kim Shiflett)

Prepare for take off

Over the past eight weeks, Team Lucy has prepared the spacecraft for the flight to NASA Kennedy Space Center, which is next to the Cape Canaveral space station. Engineers and technicians took important steps during this milestone, including installing Lucy’s high gain antenna and filling her fuel tanks.

“There was a lot of hands-on work,” Donya Douglas-Bradshaw, Lucy Project Manager at NASA Goddard, said in a press release. “This summer has gone by so quickly, it’s hard to believe we’re almost at launch.”

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

Above all these preparations, however, looms a possible government shutdown: Federal government funding will expire on Thursday (September 30) Unless Capitol Hill lawmakers reach some sort of tax deal.

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

“The application process is ongoing; it is not yet complete,” Glaze said. “We are watching very, very closely what is happening with Congress and the budget.”

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

Mike Wall is the author of “The low“(Grand Central Publishing, 2018; illustrated by Karl Tate), a book on the search for alien life. Follow him on Twitter @michaeldwall. Follow us on twitter @Spacedotcom or Facebook.

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