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NASA’s Lucy mission will soon be heading out to investigate Trojan asteroids

A NASA mission will soon be blasting off to investigate the Trojans, a lesser-studied group of asteroids in the outer solar system. The Lucy mission, named after the famed Australopithecus fossil which was key to understanding early human evolution, will be launching later this month and could help teach us about how the solar system formed.

The (ULA) Centaur stage for NASA’s Lucy mission is lifted by crane into the Vertical Integration Facility.
The United Launch Alliance (ULA) Centaur stage for NASA’s Lucy mission is lifted by crane into the Vertical Integration Facility near Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on Thursday, Sept. 16, 2021. NASA/Kim Shiflett

The spacecraft has been brought to Florida, ready for its launch from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station on Saturday, October 16. Lucy will be launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket from Pad 41, from where it will head through Earth’s atmosphere, out of Earth’s orbit, and through the solar system to the Trojan asteroids.

The Trojans are located in the orbit of Jupiter, in two groups — one ahead of the planet and one behind it. Astronomers think these asteroids are leftovers of some of the material which formed the planets in the earliest days of the solar system, so studying them can help us understand how planets are formed.

“With Lucy, we’re going to eight never-before-seen asteroids in 12 years with a single spacecraft,” said Tom Statler, Lucy project scientist at NASA Headquarters. “This is a fantastic opportunity for discovery as we probe into our solar system’s distant past.”

An artist's concept of the Lucy Mission.
An artist’s concept of the Lucy Mission. SwRI

“There has been a lot of hands-on work,” said Donya Douglas-Bradshaw, Lucy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This summer has gone by so fast; it’s hard to believe we’re nearly at launch.”

With the spacecraft preparing for launch, its fuel tanks have been filled with a mix of liquid hydrazine and liquid oxygen which will allow it to maneuver between asteroids. It also has its solar panels to recharge its science instruments from the sun.

“Launching a spacecraft is almost like sending a child off to college – you’ve done what can for them to get them ready for that next big step on their own,” said Hal Levison, the principal investigator of the Lucy mission, based at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

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