Science

NASA’s Fossil Hunting ‘LUCY’ Mission

Launch of NASA's latest mission 'Lucy'. Source: NASA/Bill Ingalls (via Flickr)

By Matt Jordan | Contributor

This month, LUCY, a new NASA asteroid probe launched from Cape Canaveral, Florida.

Named for the famous Australopithecus fossil specimen ‘LUCY’, also known as AL 288-1 or ‘Dinkinesh’ discovered in 1974, the NASA spacecraft will perform a series of flybys over twelve years, visiting seven of Jupiter’s trojan asteroids as well as a main belt asteroid.

Asteroids and comets are often studied to learn more about the Solar System’s formation, as well as that of other planetary systems.

“The trojan asteroids lead or follow Jupiter in its orbit by about 60 degrees,” explained the mission’s principal investigator Hal Levison, from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI).

“They’re held there by the gravitational effect of Jupiter and the Sun. And if you put an object there early in the Solar System’s history, it’s been stable forever. So, these things really are the fossils of what planets formed from.”

Every two-body system, in this case the Sun and Jupiter, has five corresponding positions in space where their gravitational effects cancel out and can hold additional bodies in stable orbits maintaining a fixed distance from the two primary bodies. These Euler-Lagrange points, discovered by Leonhard Euler and Joseph-Louis Lagrange, are also useful locations for certain satellites, such as the James Webb Space Telescope.

Lucy’s complex path, incorporating multiple gravity boosts from Earth, will provide the first close-up view of all three major trojan body types.

Darker-red P-type and D-type trojans look like Kuiper Belt objects, icy asteroids from out beyond Neptune’s orbit. On the other hand, C-type “carbonaceous” asteroids are found primarily in places like the outer asteroid belt and make up around three-quarters of known asteroids.

The mission is also notable for being the first to rely on solar panels so far from the Sun, where power production is greatly reduced, as opposed to the nuclear power generation usually used for such journeys.

However, according to NASA, not everything has gone to plan after LUCY’s launch at 09:34 UTC on 16 October. After successfully separating from its rocket, one of the fan-like solar arrays failed to fully deploy. Fortunately, the current power reduction has not significantly hindered the probe.

According to a NASA update: “The team continues to look at all available engineering data to establish how far it is deployed. That solar array is generating nearly the expected power when compared to the fully deployed wing. This power level is enough to keep the spacecraft healthy and functioning.”

“The team continues its assessment and an attempt to fully deploy the solar array is planned no earlier than the end of next week.”

Science and Technology

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