Lucy probe launching to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids this month
Named Lucy after the human ancestor fossil found in Ethiopia in 1974, the spacecraft, which will launch from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket, will embark on a 12-year mission to study Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, two asteroid groups that orbit with Jupiter — one ahead of the planet and the other behind it.
These asteroids are “fossils” that have remained unchanged since the formation of the solar system 4.6 billion years ago. Scientists hope studying them will shed light on both the formation and current arrangement of the solar system’s planets.
On its way to the Jupiter Trojans, Lucy will fly by Eurybates, an asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter, and its small moon Queta. Eurybates is believed to be left over from an ancient collision in the early solar system, so scientists are eager to learn more about its composition.
After visiting Eurybates, Lucy will fly by seven Jupiter Trojans of varying colors and sizes.
Through the duration of its mission, the spacecraft will cover nearly four billion miles and travel at a speed of around 400,000 miles per hour.
“With Lucy, we’re going to eight never-before-seen asteroids in 12 years with a single spacecraft. This is a fantastic opportunity for discovery as we probe into our solar system’s distant past,” said Lucy project scientist Tom Statler of NASA Headquarters in Washington.
Over the past eight weeks, Lucy has undergone tests of its mechanical, thermal, and electrical systems, practices of its launch sequence, and installation of the high gain antenna it will use to communicate with Earth.
The 1,800-pound (820-kilogram) spacecraft will be powered by a combination of solar arrays and fuel. Its giant solar arrays will regularly charge the batteries that will power science instruments and the craft’s antenna that will communicate with Earth while its fuel, composed of liquid hydrazine and liquid oxygen, will be used for precise maneuvers propelling Lucy to its various destinations, according to NASA. When fully-fueled, the craft tips the scales at about 3,400 pounds (1,550 kilograms).
These instruments include both black-and-white and color cameras, an infrared imaging spectrometer, and a thermometer. In addition to facilitating communication, the antenna will also help mission scientists measure the asteroids’ masses.
In anticipation for launch Lucy is to be placed into the two halves of the launch vehicle’s fairing, which will then be closed around it. The spacecraft will then be brought to Cape Canaveral’s Vehicle Integration Facility sometime in early October.
Several days before launch, it will be powered up for around 20 minutes.
“The spacecraft will sit in launch configuration, and the engineering team will continuously monitor its health and status to make sure Lucy is ready to go,” said Lucy project systems engineer Jessica Lounsbury of NASAS’s Goddard Space Flight Center.
Video courtesy of NASA
Laurel Kornfeld is an amateur astronomer and freelance writer from Highland Park, NJ, who enjoys writing about astronomy and planetary science. She studied journalism at Douglass College, Rutgers University, and earned a Graduate Certificate of Science from Swinburne University’s Astronomy Online program. Her writings have been published online in The Atlantic, Astronomy magazine’s guest blog section, the UK Space Conference, the 2009 IAU General Assembly newspaper, The Space Reporter, and newsletters of various astronomy clubs. She is a member of the Cranford, NJ-based Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Especially interested in the outer solar system, Laurel gave a brief presentation at the 2008 Great Planet Debate held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD.