NASA is no stranger to the most mammoth planet in the solar system, the gas giant Jupiter. Robotic explorers, such as Juno, have contemplated its large red spot and analyzed its atmosphere. But in its planetary quarter is a collection of ancient rocks known as Trojan asteroids. These rocks are fossils from the earliest era of our solar system, time capsules enclosed in a dance around the sun, but we have never studied them closely. That is about to change.
Next weekto these ancient raw materials on an ambitious and daring decade-long mission to gain access to the well-preserved history of our solar system.
Perfectly named for the fossil he taught us about the genesis of humanity, Lucy’s 12-year journey promises to reveal a cosmic evolutionary record. The spacecraft will capture the first views of a diverse selection of Trojan asteroids to help scientists decipher how and why they became the planets in our solar system.
Right now, we know almost nothing about the properties of these primitive rocks. But we’ve done our best to help you prepare for the momentous release.
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How to watch NASA launch the Lucy mission
You can see the exit, currently scheduled for October 16 at 2:34 am PT (5:34 am ET), online on NASA TV.
Be sure to come back closer to the big day to get clips from the launch at CNET Highlights.
Here is this moment all over the world:
Saturday 16 October
- USA: 2:34 am PT / 5:34 am ET
- Brazil: 6:34 am Rio
- United Kingdom: 10:34 am
- South Africa: 11:34 h
- Russia: 12:34 pm (Moscow)
- EAU: 13:34 h
- India: 3:04 p.m.
- China: 5:34 p.m.
- Japan: 6:34 p.m.
- Australia: 20:34 AEDT
While you wait, let’s look at why this mission could change the world for astronomers.
What are Trojan Asteroids?
Long before the existence of the planets, the solar system overflowed with billions of rocky, icy bodies orbiting a faint sun. Some of these fragments slowly merged to form larger planets, such as Earth and Mars. But along the way, a lot of floating rocks remained.
Many were dragged into the endless depths of the universe, taking away their secrets, but there is still a footprint on the outside of our solar system.
Trapped between the gravitational pull of the sun and Jupiter are these primitive pieces of rock that have existed for billions of years. They are known as the Trojan asteroids of Jupiter. NASA aptly refers to them as “time capsules from the birth of our solar system” and form two clusters that share an orbit with the gas giant. So far more than 7,000 have been detected.
“The things that were growing Jupiter and Saturn are now trapped in these places,” said Hal Levison, NASA’s planetary scientist and lead researcher on the Lucy mission, Hal Levison.
Where does Lucy come in?
Lucy will be the first spacecraft to launch asteroids between seven of the Trojan asteroids, but before heading to the main and final outlets, she will visit a main belt asteroid located between Mars and Jupiter.
“We will go to eight asteroids never seen in 12 years with a single spacecraft,” Tom Statler, a scientist on the Lucy project at NASA headquarters in Washington, said in a statement. “This is a fantastic opportunity for discovery as we explore the distant past of our solar system.”
NASA notes that “no other space mission in history has been launched to so many different destinations in independent orbits around our sun” and that “Lucy will show us, for the first time, the diversity of the primordial bodies that built the planets “.
The spacecraft will use traditional chemical propulsion technology that will help maneuver, but to save fuel it will go through points of interest instead of stepping slowly. However, this is not a big hurdle, because Lucy can still take photos and collect spectroscopic information while walking.
Armed with a high-gain antenna for communication with the Earth; high-tech cameras (in color as well as black and white); with a spectrometer and an infrared thermometer, the spacecraft will test several key features of these asteroids by capturing their physical properties:
Surface geology: This includes aspects such as the shape, size of the crater, the structure of the crust and the layers.
Surface color and composition: Some of these features are the tones and colors of the rocks, the mineral composition, and the properties of the regolith, such as the composition of the loose soil.
Interiors and bulk properties: This section includes masses, densities, dust blankets around craters, and other spicy details.
Satellites and rings: Some of the asteroids may have mini-asteroids orbiting them, as if they were the center of their own solar system. Some may even have Saturn-like rings consisting of super small rocks or icy bodies.
Preparation for takeoff
It is not easy to be a NASA spacecraft.
Because Lucy will rely on solar energy for the mission, her matrices – large enough to cover a five-story building – had to undergo intense testing to make sure they would not malfunction during spaceflight. They are so large because of the distance the probe will carry from the sun.
According to NASA, it will take a total of 20 minutes to expand these important solar panels after launch. “These 20 minutes will determine whether the rest of the 12-year mission will be a success,” Levison said in a statement.
Mars rovers, such as Perseverance, have shorter periods of time that cause anxiety during their EDL phase, or sequence of entry, descent, and landing.
“Mars terrifiers have their seven minutes of terror, we have that,” Levison remarked.
After several iterations of testing, Doña Douglas-Bradshaw, head of the Lucy project at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, said in a statement that the ground execution was “flawless.”
Although space is a very different field.
On October 16, Lucy will be transported to the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station’s vehicle integration facility and “paired” with the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket. This rocket will help Lucy get out of the Earth’s atmosphere.
Then Lucy will move away from our home planet to begin the 12-year journey, spinning around the solar system, using Earth’s gravity as a lever three times during the journey.
“Launching a spaceship is almost like sending a kid to college; you’ve done everything you can to prepare them for the next big step on their own,” Levison said.
What will happen once the mission is over?
After a dozen years, Lucy will stabilize near Earth and then cross again to the Trojan asteroid belt. It will be the first spacecraft to travel to Jupiter and return home.
Future humans will be faced with two options: pick Lucy up as an artifact and take her to Earth, or allow Jupiter to finally launch her into the sun or solar system.
Don’t be afraid. Lucy’s job will be complete by then. And perhaps our astronomy textbooks will be modified with the unprecedented information it provides us.