Nasa spacecraft Lucy ready for Trojan asteroids mission

Christened after a fossil and not a Beatles song, the robotic shuttle will visit an unprecedented number of asteroids during its 12-year mission

Nasa's robotic trailblazer Lucy is scheduled to launch on Saturday morning at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida, which will begin its 12-year mission surveying swarms of ancient asteroids near Jupiter - unexplored time capsules from the dawn of the solar system.

Lucy will explore a record-breaking eight asteroids on its mission.

The spacecraft will fly by one asteroid in the solar system's main belt in April 2025, followed by seven Trojan asteroids in August 2027.

Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Scientists named the spacecraft after the 3.2 million-year-old fossilised human ancestor, whose skeletal remains has provided insight into human's evolution. Lucy was discovered in 1974 in Hadar, Ethiopia.

They hope her namesake will respond in kind by uncovering key secrets of our heavenly origins.

“The Lucy fossil really transformed our understanding of human evolution, and that’s what we want to do is transform our understanding of solar system evolution by looking at all these different objects,” said Southwest Research Institute’s Cathy Olkin, the deputy principal scientist who proposed the spacecraft’s name.

Named after characters in Greek mythology, the Trojan asteroids circle the Sun in two swarms, with one group leading ahead of Jupiter in its path, the other trailing behind it.

By studying these asteroids up close, scientists hope to learn more about how the solar system's planets formed 4.5 billion years ago and why they ended up in their current configuration.

“That’s what makes the Trojans special. If these ideas of ours are right, they formed throughout the outer solar system and are now at one location where we can go and study them,” said Lucy's principal scientist Hal Levison.

Lucy is more than 14 metres from tip to tip, but most of that is the huge solar panels needed to power the spacecraft as it flies out to Jupiter's orbit.

All of the instruments, and the two-metre-high gain antenna needed to communicate with Earth, will be located on the much smaller spacecraft body.

“If you look at our spacecraft... the most obvious feature that we have on Lucy is our gigantic, amazing solar array wings," Katie Oakman, structures and mechanisms lead for Lucy, said.

Lucy's path will circle back to Earth three times for gravity assists, which will make it the first spacecraft ever to return to its vicinity from the outer solar system. The return to Earth acts as a slingshot for the spacecraft to reach each of Jupiter's Trojan swarms.

Lucy is the first in a series of of spacecraft to visit some of the solar system's most alluring asteroids.

The Dart spacecraft, with a targeted launch date of November 24, is expected to be an exercise in planetary defence. Its mission will end with Dart ramming the main asteroid’s moonlet to change its orbit, a test that could one day save Earth from an incoming rock.

Next summer, a spacecraft will launch to a rare metal world that could be the exposed core of an ancient planet.

In 2023 a spacecraft will parachute into the Utah desert with samples from an asteroid that could endanger Earth centuries from now.

China and Russia are teaming up for an asteroid mission later this decade. The UAE is also planning an asteroid stop in the coming years.

Agencies contributed to this report

Updated: October 15th 2021, 4:50 PM
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