NASA’s Lucy mission launches this week: What to learn about journey to Jupiter’s orbit

NASA's Lucy mission to Jupiter's Trojan asteroids: Everything you need to know

Lucy flies over a Trojan asteroid on this NASA animation.

NASA’s Goddard Area Flight Middle

NASA is about to embark on an area archeology mission for the ages. Out in Jupiter’s orbit lies a group of rocks generally known as the Trojan asteroids — fossils from the earliest period of our photo voltaic system. These time capsules are locked in a dance across the solar and will maintain the important thing to unlocking the origins of the enormous planets. 

Subsequent week, NASA is sending the Lucy spacecraft towards these historic uncooked supplies in an bold and daring decade-long mission to entry our photo voltaic system’s well-preserved historical past.

Completely named for the fossil that taught us about humanity’s genesis, Lucy’s 12-year-long trek guarantees to disclose a cosmic evolutionary file. The spacecraft will catch closeup views of a various collection of Trojan asteroids to assist scientists decipher how and why our photo voltaic system’s planets got here to be. 

Proper now, we all know near nothing about these primitive rocks’ properties. However we have rounded up every thing we will that can assist you put together for the momentous launch.

Cue “Lucy within the sky with diamonds.”

The best way to watch NASA launch the Lucy mission

You possibly can watch the lift-off, at present scheduled for Oct. 16 at 2:34 a.m. PT (5:34 a.m. ET), on-line on NASA TV

Make certain to examine again nearer to the large day for a livestream on CNET Highlights and all of the instances throughout the globe. 

And whilst you wait, let’s dive into why this mission may very well be world-changing for astronomers.

What are the Trojan asteroids?

Lengthy earlier than planets got here into existence, the photo voltaic system overflowed with trillions of rocky and icy our bodies orbiting a dim solar. A few of these fragments slowly fused collectively to kind bigger planets, such because the Earth and Mars. However alongside the best way, a bunch of floating rocks had been left over.

Many had been swept into the limitless depths of the universe — taking their secrets and techniques with them — however a smattering nonetheless reside within the outer reaches of our photo voltaic system.

Caught between the gravitational pull of the solar and of Jupiter are these primitive items of rock which have been round for billions of years. They’re generally known as Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids. NASA aptly refers to them as “time capsules from the start of our photo voltaic system,” and so they kind two clusters that share an orbit with the gasoline large. Over 7,000 have been detected thus far.

“The stuff that went into rising Jupiter and Saturn are actually trapped in these places,” NASA planetary scientist and principal investigator of the Lucy mission, Hal Levison, mentioned within the mission’s overview.

The place does Lucy are available?

Lucy would be the first spacecraft to asteroid-hop amongst seven of the Trojan asteroids, however earlier than heading to each the main and trailing swarms, it’s going to go to a principal belt asteroid positioned between Mars and Jupiter. 

In inexperienced, you see the main and trailing swarms of Jupiter Trojans. That is the place Lucy is headed.


“We will eight never-before-seen asteroids in 12 years with a single spacecraft,” Tom Statler, Lucy challenge scientist at NASA headquarters in Washington mentioned in a assertion. “This can be a unbelievable alternative for discovery as we probe into our photo voltaic system’s distant previous.”

NASA notes that “no different house mission in historical past has been launched to as many various locations in unbiased orbits round our solar” and that “Lucy will present us, for the primary time, the range of the primordial our bodies that constructed the planets.” 

The spacecraft will use conventional chemical propulsion expertise that’ll assist with maneuvering, however to save lots of gas, it’s going to fly previous factors of curiosity as a substitute of treading slowly. That does not pose a lot of a hindrance, although, as a result of Lucy can nonetheless snap pics and gather spectroscopic info whereas whizzing by.

Mission targets

Armed with a high-gain antenna for communication with Earth; high-tech cameras (shade, in addition to black and white); an infrared spectrometer and thermometer, the spacecraft will try a number of key options of those asteroids by capturing their bodily properties: 

Floor geology: This consists of issues like form, crater dimension, crustal construction and layering.

Floor shade and composition: Tones and colours of the rocks, mineral make-up and regolith properties, reminiscent of unfastened soil composition, are a few of these options.

Interiors and bulk properties: Plenty, densities, powder blankets round craters and different nitty gritty particulars comprise this part.

Satellites and rings: A number of of the asteroids might need mini-asteroids orbiting them, as if they’re the middle of their very own photo voltaic system. Some may even have Saturn-like rings consisting of super-small rocks or icy our bodies.

NASA’s Lucy will discover eight asteroids over a dozen years.

Lockheed Martin

Prepping for take-off

It is not straightforward being a NASA probe. 

As a result of Lucy will depend on solar energy for the mission, its arrays — massive sufficient to cowl a five-story constructing — needed to endure intense testing to make sure they will not malfunction throughout spaceflight. They’re so large due to how far the probe shall be touring from the solar. 


A researcher engaged on Lucy’s photo voltaic panels.

Lockheed Martin

In line with NASA, it can take a complete of 20 minutes for these essential photo voltaic panels to increase after launch. “These 20 minutes will decide if the remainder of the 12-year mission shall be a hit,” Levison mentioned in an announcement

Mars rovers, reminiscent of Perseverance, have shorter spans of anxiety-inducing moments throughout their EDL section, or entry, descent and touchdown sequence. 

“Mars landers have their seven minutes of terror, we’ve this,” Levison remarked.

After a number of iterations of testing, Donya Douglas-Bradshaw, Lucy challenge supervisor from NASA’s Goddard Area Flight Middle in Greenbelt, Maryland, mentioned in an announcement that the execution on the bottom was “flawless.” 

Though house is a really completely different enviornment.

On Oct. 16, Lucy shall be transported to the Automobile Integration Facility on the Cape Canaveral Area Power Station and “mated” with the United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket. That rocket will assist Lucy exit Earth’s ambiance. 

Then, Lucy will propel away from our residence planet to start the 12-year voyage, swinging across the photo voltaic system, utilizing Earth’s gravity as leverage thrice in the course of the journey.

“Launching a spacecraft is nearly like sending a baby off to varsity — you’ve got finished what can for them to get them prepared for that subsequent massive step on their very own,” Levison mentioned.


Lucy stands 13 ft (4 meters), almost totally assembled on this photograph.

Lockheed Martin

What’s going to occur after the mission is full?

After a dozen years, Lucy will stabilize close to Earth, then campaign as soon as once more to the Trojan asteroid belt. It will be the primary ever spacecraft to journey all the best way to Jupiter and again residence.

Future people will face two choices: gather Lucy as an artifact and convey it all the way down to Earth, or enable Jupiter to ultimately fling it into the solar or out of the photo voltaic system. 

To not concern. Lucy’s job shall be full by then. And maybe our astronomy textbooks shall be amended with the unprecedented info it delivers residence.

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