Skip to main content

NASA’s Lucy spacecraft swings by Earth on its way to Trojan asteroids

NASA’s Lucy spacecraft is on its way to the Trojan asteroids to learn about the formation of the solar system, but it isn’t traveling in a straight line from Earth to the orbit of Jupiter. Instead, it is performing a series of slingshot maneuvers to help it on its journey, including a recent maneuver around Earth. This weekend, a few lucky observers were able to see Lucy as it performed an Earth flyby before heading back out into space.

Here's @LucyMission during today's Earth gravity assist. Screengrab from observations made by @plutoflag.
Tracking continues on

— Raphael Marschall (@SpaceMarschall) October 16, 2022

The spacecraft came closest to Earth at 7:04 a.m. ET on Sunday, October 16, when it passed within 220 miles of the Earth’s surface. Originally, it had been set to come event closer, but the Lucy team chose to keep a little more distance due to problems that Lucy has had with one of its solar arrays. Lucy has two round arrays, which deployed following launch, but one of them failed to deploy fully and did not latch into place. After months of careful tweaking, the second array is almost fully deployed, but still isn’t latched, so it was best to be cautious with the gravitational forces of a flyby.

“In the original plan, Lucy was actually going to pass about 30 miles closer to the Earth,” says Rich Burns, Lucy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, in a statement. “However, when it became clear that we might have to execute this flyby with one of the solar arrays unlatched, we chose to use a bit of our fuel reserves so that the spacecraft passes the Earth at a slightly higher altitude, reducing the disturbance from the atmospheric drag on the spacecraft’s solar arrays.”

Illustration of NASA’s Lucy spacecraft performing a flyby of Earth. NASA

As Lucy moveda way from Earth, it also passed by the moon. This gave the spacecraft the opportunity to take some images that will be used for calibration, as the moon is a helpful stand-in for the asteroids that Lucy will eventually investigate.

“I’m especially excited by the final few images that Lucy will take of the moon,” said John Spencer, acting deputy project scientist at the Southwest Research Institute, which leads the Lucy mission. “Counting craters to understand the collisional history of the Trojan asteroids is key to the science that Lucy will carry out, and this will be the first opportunity to calibrate Lucy’s ability to detect craters by comparing it to previous observations of the moon by other space missions.”
Georgina Torbet
Georgina is the Digital Trends space writer, covering human space exploration, planetary science, and cosmology. She…
Voyager 1 spacecraft is still alive and sending signals to Earth
NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft is depicted in this artist’s concept traveling through interstellar space, or the space between stars, which it entered in 2012.

NASA's two Voyager spacecraft, launched in the 1970s, have passed beyond the orbit of Pluto and into interstellar space, making them the most distant man-made objects to exist in the universe. However, as you'd expect from technology that is nearly 50 years old, the pair of probes have had their share of technical difficulties in their time. But now, NASA has announced that it is back in contact with Voyager 1, around five months after communications with the spacecraft were disrupted. The remarkable pair of explorers continue out into the depths of space to fight another day.

NASA’s Voyager 1 spacecraft is depicted in this artist’s concept traveling through interstellar space, or the space between stars, which it entered in 2012. NASA/JPL-Caltech

Read more
NASA needs a new approach for its challenging Mars Sample Return mission
An illustration of NASA's Sample Return Lander shows it tossing a rocket in the air like a toy from the surface of Mars.

NASA has shared an update on its beleaguered Mars Sample Return mission, admitting that its previous plan was too ambitious and announcing that it will now be looking for new ideas to make the mission happen. The idea is to send a mission to collect samples from the surface of Mars and return them to Earth for study. It's been a long-term goal of planetary science researchers, but one that is proving costly and difficult to put into practice.

The Perseverance rover has already collected and sealed a number of samples of Mars rock as it journeys around the Jezero Crater, and has left these samples in a sample cache ready to be collected.  However, getting them back to Earth in the previous plan required sending a vehicle to Mars, getting it to land on the surface, sending out another rover to collect the samples and bring them back, launching a rocket from the planet's surface (something which has never been done before), and then having this rocket rendezvous with another spacecraft to carry them back to Earth. That level of complexity was just too much to be feasible within a reasonable budget, NASA Administrator Bill Nelson announced this week.

Read more
Russian Soyuz on its way to ISS after being delayed due to electrical issue
The Soyuz MS-25 spacecraft lifts off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan on March 23, 2024

A trio of crew members are on their way to the International Space Station (ISS) on board a Soyuz spacecraft following a rescheduled launch spurred by an electrical issue. The Russian Soyuz MS-25 was originally supposed to launch on Thursday, March 21, but the launch was scrubbed at the last minute due to a problem with the launch vehicle.

The launch was rescheduled for Saturday, March 23, with the rocket lifting off from the Baikonur Cosmodrome in Kazakhstan at 8:36 a.m. ET. The crew are now safely in orbit and are on their way to the ISS, where they should arrive on Monday morning.

Read more