1st mission to distant asteroids
GS Paper - 3 (Space Technology)
NASA's newest asteroid probe, named Lucy, blasted off from Kennedy Space Center in Florida to embark on a 12-year mission to study two different clusters of asteroids around Jupiter known as Trojans. These swarms represent the final unexplored regions of asteroids in the solar system.
- Lucy, acting as a robotic archaeologist, will help to answer questions about how the giant planets formed.
- Perched atop a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V rocket, the refrigerator-sized spacecraft lit up the predawn skies above Cape Canaveral as it leapt off its launch pad on 16 October 2021.
- Lucy will spend the next six years cruising through the solar system, looping around the Earth twice in order to build up enough momentum to reach Jupiter.
- The spacecraft will fly by a total of eight different asteroids (seven Trojans, which are located in two separate swarms, ahead of and behind the massive planet in its orbit, and one main belt) in order to help scientists better understand how the solar system evolved.
- Researchers believe that the Trojans are perfectly preserved cosmic time capsules and hope that studying them could shed more light on the origin of the solar system and how the giant planets formed.
- The reason why [the Trojans] are important scientifically is that they were essentially leftovers, Hal Levison, Lucy's principal investigator said.
- To date, space agencies around the world have explored a variety of small bodies from the asteroid belt to near-Earth asteroids (using projects like Japan's Hayabusa mission and NASA's OSIRIS-REx) to the icy expanse of the Kuiper belt.
- But one area remains unexplored: the Trojan swarms around Jupiter. Approximately 10,000 objects have been discovered in these two regions ranging from a few kilometers across to hundreds of kilometers in diameter.
- The mission is named "Lucy" as a nod to the 3.2 million-year-old hominin skeleton discovered in 1974 by a paleoanthropologist named Donald Johanson.
- At the time, the skeleton was the oldest and most complete hominin discovered and it revealed some secrets of human evolution.
- NASA named its newest spacecraft Lucy because it hopes that the robotic probe can help unlock some secrets of solar system evolution.