NASA is launching an ambitious mission to explore swarms of asteroids as old as our solar system.
These asteroids, called Trojans, orbit Jupiter with the Sun. One group of them leads the gas giant along its orbit path, and another group paths behind. These space rocks formed during the birth of our solar system almost 4.6 billion years ago and have remained largely unchanged since.
Scientists want to find out what these time capsules contain, so NASA is sending a 52-foot-wide spacecraft, called Lucy, to investigate. The probe will launch aboard an Atlas V rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on October 16.
Lucy is scheduled to visit eight asteroids over the next 12 years. One of these space rocks is in the solar system’s most important asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter, which Lucy will pass on her way to the other seven asteroids, which are part of the Trojans.
“We see these objects as fossils of planet formation,” Hal Levison, the mission’s lead researcher, said in a briefing last month.
This is where Lucy gets her name — it’s a reference to the famous 3.2 million year old fossilized human ancestor. At the time of her discovery, in 1974, Lucy was the oldest, most complete hominin skeleton ever found. She was proof that human ancestors walked upright, helping paleoanthropologists gather human evolutionary history. Scientists hope that Trojan asteroids can do the same for the outer solar system.
“Some of the most important planetary science questions we are trying to answer are focused on the origin and evolution of the solar system. Asteroids and other small bodies are really important keys to understanding that history,” Lori Glaze, NASA’s director of planetary science, said in the briefing. .
Lucy’s planned trip would make it visit more asteroids than any previous spacecraft. It will also venture farther from the sun than any solar-powered probe has ever gone.
Liftoff is scheduled for 5:34 AM ET on October 16th. If the weather delays the launch, NASA has another 20 days in its window.
Close encounters of the asteroid kind
Lucy’s mission is seven years in the making. The original plan required visits to only two asteroids, but NASA engineers and scientists became more ambitious as they designed the spacecraft and planned its journey.
Now the probe has a record-breaking row. Some of the eight stops are two-for-one: an asteroid has its own satellite – a smaller rock trapped in its orbit – and two of Lucy’s targets are a pair of binary asteroids orbiting each other.
But Lucy’s encounter with each original rum rock becomes short. The spacecraft cannot brake or land on its targets – it would require too much propellant – so it will lightning within 600 miles of their surfaces and move 3 to 5 5 miles per second.
During the few hours as it approaches and passes the asteroids, Lucy’s scientific instruments will collect data on their composition, density and size. It could even detect rocks or rings orbiting the asteroids – features too small to be seen from Earth.
By the end of Lucy’s journey, NASA expects to have spent $ 981.1 million on the mission, according to Glaze.
Lucy must visit Earth 3 times to hit her goals
Scientists have identified over 7,000 Trojan asteroids, divided into three main types. One group resembles the space rocks of the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, while the other two resemble icy objects in the Kuiper Belt on the edge of the solar system.
This suggests that the different types of Trojans formed through different processes and in different parts of the solar system. Scientists are not sure how they ended up together along Jupiter’s orbit. So Lucy will visit asteroids of each type in an attempt to find out.
“Covering this diversity is key. And finding a path that will actually allow us to visit all of these types of objects has been a real task,” Levison said.
To reach all of its destinations, Lucy must actually circulate back to Earth three times to get a momentum boost from the gravity of our planet. This will make it the first spacecraft to travel to Jupiter’s orbit and back.
NASA is all about asteroids
NASA sends probes to asteroids scattered throughout the solar system.
“Lucy is part of a collection of ambitious missions to explore the diversity of these asteroid populations that will help us complete more pieces of the cosmic puzzle,” Glaze said.
NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft has been studying asteroids and other objects in the Kuiper Belt, in addition to Neptune, since it flew past Pluto in 2015.
The agency’s OSIRIS-REx spacecraft, meanwhile, landed on an asteroid last year, struck the surface and took a sample of rocks. That probe is on its way back to Earth with the sample in tow. Japan recently completed a similar mission and brought its own asteroid samples to Earth, so NASA and Japan’s space agency plan to trade parts of their samples.
Other missions aim to prepare for the possibility that an asteroid could hit our planet. In November, NASA plans to launch a spacecraft to slam into a nearby asteroid. This mission, called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART), tests a method that can divert space rocks from a collision course with Earth. NASA is also working on a new space telescope, called the NEO (Near-Earth object) Surveyor, which would help scientists catalog dangerous asteroids in our neighborhood.
Next year, NASA plans to launch another probe, called the Psyche, for a metallic asteroid that could be the remaining core of an ancient planet.
“All of these are incredibly interesting destinations. And in each case, we are exploring places that no spacecraft has ever been, so we do not know for sure what we will discover until we get there,” Glaze said. “But we know that whatever Lucy finds, it will give us vital clues about the formation of our solar system.”
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