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NASA, ULA have launched the Lucy mission to study the 'Fossils' of planetary formation




Lucy will fly by one main-belt asteroid and seven Trojan asteroids over the course of the next 12 years, making it the agency's first single spacecraft mission to explore this wide a range of asteroids in a single mission. Lucy's journey will allow her to get up close and personal with these "fossils" of planet formation.


According to NASA Administrator Bill Nelson, "Lucy exemplifies NASA's unwavering commitment to pushing out into space for the sake of exploration and science, in order to gain a better understanding of the universe and our place within it." "I'm looking forward to learning more about the mysteries that the mission will uncover!"


Lucy disengaged from the second stage of the United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket about an hour after launch, according to NASA. Within 30 minutes, the spacecraft's two massive solar arrays, which are each nearly 24 feet (7.3 meters) wide, had successfully unfurled and began charging the spacecraft's batteries, which power the spacecraft's various subsystems.


As Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at NASA's headquarters in Washington, put it, "Today's launch represents a genuine full-circle moment for me, as Lucy was the first mission I approved shortly after joining NASA in 2017," he said. "A true discovery mission, Lucy provides numerous opportunities to learn more about the mysterious Trojan asteroids and gain a better understanding of the formation and evolution of the early solar system."


At 6:40 a.m., Lucy transmitted its first signal to Earth, which was received by NASA's Deep Space Network through its own antenna. A speed of approximately 67,000 miles per hour (108,000 kilometers per hour), the spacecraft is currently traveling on a trajectory that will take it around the Sun and back to Earth in October 2022 for a gravity assist.


Known as the Lucy mission after a fossilized skeleton believed to be that of one of our earliest known hominin ancestors, it will enable scientists to investigate two swarms of Trojan asteroids that orbit the Sun and Jupiter, respectively. According to current theories, Trojan asteroids are remnants of the material that once formed giant planets. A study of them can reveal previously unknown information about their formation and the evolution of the solar system in the same way that studying Lucy's fossilized skeleton revolutionized our understanding of human evolution.


Hal Levison, Lucy's principal investigator based at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) Boulder, Colorado branch, explained that the mission concept was first developed in early 2014. "This launch has been a long time in the making," Levison said of the mission's delayed launch. "While it will be several years before the first Trojan asteroid is discovered, the immense scientific value of these objects makes the time and effort spent searching for them well worthwhile. They have the appearance of diamonds suspended in the sky."


Many of Lucy's Trojan destinations are trapped near Jupiter's Lagrange points, which are gravitationally stable points in space that are connected to the planet's orbit and can trap smaller masses. Currently, there are two Trojan swarms in front of the gas giant planet and two more behind it. Jupiter's Trojan swarms are made up of asteroids that are as far away from Jupiter as the Sun is from the planet's surface.


During Lucy's first Earth gravity assist, which will take place in 2022, the spacecraft will accelerate and direct itself beyond Mars' orbit. A second gravity assist will be provided in 2024, when the spacecraft will swing back toward Earth for a third time, propelling Lucy toward the Donaldjohanson asteroid, which is located within the solar system's main asteroid belt.


Lucy will then make its way toward the swarm of Trojan asteroids that will pass in front of Jupiter, where it is expected to arrive in 2027 for its first encounter. After completing its first four targeted flybys, the spacecraft will return to Earth in 2031 for a third gravity boost, which will catapult it toward the trailing Trojan swarm for a 2033 encounter with the asteroid belt.


The Lucy mission is being managed by Donya Douglas-Bradshaw at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. "Today, we commemorate this incredible achievement and look forward to the new discoveries that Lucy will make," Douglas-Bradshaw said.


NASA Goddard is in charge of mission management, systems engineering, mission assurance and safety, and other aspects of space exploration. Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado, was in charge of the construction of the spacecraft. Lucy is the thirteenth mission in the NASA Discovery Program. NASA's Discovery Program is overseen by the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, which is located in the United States.

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