Saturday start for NASA's Lucy probe on its 12-year quest to map Jupiter's Trojan asteroids

Astronomers will be searching for clues on how the Solar System formed


NASA’s Lucy spacecraft is set to embark on its 12-year tour, traveling almost four billion miles, to visit eight asteroids near Jupiter during its mission to reveal the Solar System’s origins.

The 14-meter probe is due to launch on Saturday 16 October at 0934 (UTC) atop Lockheed Martin’s Atlas V rocket from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. The $981m mission is the first of its kind; no asteroid mission has ever ventured beyond the large asteroid belt, a region containing millions of space rocks between Mars and Jupiter.

Lucy will flyby a Main Belt object and then go on to study seven Trojans, asteroids that share the same orbit as Jupiter by its interaction with the Sun's gravity. These are remnants of the Solar System's early materials and may include a surprise moon.

“Lucy’s ability to fly by so many targets means that we will not only get the first up-close look at this unexplored population, but we will also be able to study why these asteroids appear so different,” said Cathy Olkin, deputy principal investigator of the mission, and a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).

“The mission will provide an unparalleled glimpse into the formation of our Solar System, helping us understand the evolution of the planetary system as a whole.”

Asteroids are rocky bits of material that didn’t get swept up in the formation of planets in our Solar System 4.5 billion years ago, Harold Levison, the principal investigator of the mission and an astronomer at SwRI, explained:

“The Trojan asteroids are leftovers from the early days of our Solar System, effectively fossils of the planet formation process. They hold vital clues to deciphering the history of our Solar System. Lucy, like the human ancestor fossil for which it is named, will revolutionize the understanding of our origins.”

Lucy carries a range of instruments to study these ancient rocks, including an infrared spectrometer and color cameras. These will help scientists study the size, shape, surface temperature, and chemical composition of these asteroids. It will be powered by two six-meter wide decagonal-shaped solar arrays.

“Launching a spacecraft is almost like sending a child off to college — you’ve done what you can to get them ready for that next big step on their own,” Levison said. “Lucy is ready to fly.” ®

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