NASA's pioneering Lucy probe takes off to study Trojan asteroids
A first-of-a-kind NASA launch took place over the weekend, setting the agency's Lucy spacecraft on a pioneering path to study an unprecedented number of asteroids as part of a single mission. Among them are the Trojan asteroids that both trail and lead Jupiter around the Sun and are thought to be remnants of the primordial material from the formation of the Solar System's outer planets.
The Lucy mission was confirmed in 2017 as an endeavor to peek into time capsules of sorts from the birth of the Solar System around four billion years ago. The Trojan asteroids travel around the Sun in the same orbit as Jupiter, but in two clusters, one behind the giant planet and one leading out ahead of it. By studying these primitive bodies up close, the hope is Lucy can return valuable clues around how the outer planets took shape all that time ago.
This will take place over a 12-year mission that kicked off early Saturday morning from Cape Canaveral with the help of a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. An hour later, Lucy separated from the second stage of the rocket and unfolded a pair of giant solar arrays to begin charging up its batteries to power its onboard systems, and return its first signal to Earth.
But it's not exactly a direct route that Lucy will be taking toward Jupiter. The spacecraft is currently orbiting the Sun and will be slung back toward Earth in October 2022 for a gravity assist maneuver, which will propel it out beyond the orbit of Mars. Another Earth flyby and gravity assist will then take place in 2024, and send Lucy toward the Solar System's main asteroid belt in 2025 as a first port of call, to study an asteroid by the name of 52246 Donaldjohanson.
Lucy is expected to arrive at the leading cluster of Trojan asteroids in 2027, when it will conduct flybys of four targets before swinging around Earth once again for a gravity assist in 2031, and then returning to the trailing set of Trojan asteroids in 2033 with three further targets in its crosshairs. Numbering eight in all, this will be NASA's first mission to study this many asteroids from the same spacecraft.
“We started working on the Lucy mission concept early in 2014, so this launch has been long in the making,” said Hal Levison, Lucy principal investigator, based out of the Boulder, Colorado, branch of Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), which is headquartered in San Antonio. “It will still be several years before we get to the first Trojan asteroid, but these objects are worth the wait and all the effort because of their immense scientific value. They are like diamonds in the sky.”