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NASA's Lucy Mission Prepares for Launch To Study Planet Formation's "Fossils"


Lucy, NASA's first spacecraft to study Jupiter's Trojan asteroids, has been thoroughly tested, and the space agency is preparing to pack it into a capsule for launch on Saturday, October 16, 2021. Lucy will be the first spacecraft to study Jupiter's Trojan asteroids.


These asteroids, which are named after characters from Greek mythology, orbit the Sun in two swarms, with one group leading ahead of Jupiter in its path and the other trailing behind. Lucy will be the first spacecraft to make a stop at these asteroid clusters in history. Scientists hope that by studying these asteroids up close, they will be able to refine their theories about how our solar system's planets formed 4.5 billion years ago and how they came to be in their current configuration today.


"With Lucy, we'll send a single spacecraft to eight asteroids that have never been visited before in 12 years," said Tom Statler, Lucy project scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. "As we probe into the distant past of our solar system, we have a fantastic opportunity to make new discoveries."


Lucy team members have spent the past eight weeks at NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Florida, where they have been following all pandemic protocols in preparation for the spacecraft's launch. Spacecraft mechanical, electrical, and thermal systems have been thoroughly tested, and engineers have practiced executing the launch sequence from the mission operations centers at Kennedy Space Center and Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado. The spacecraft is scheduled to launch on March 31. Engineers completed the installation of the spacecraft's high-gain antenna in early August, which is the spacecraft's second most visible feature after the massive solar arrays. The antenna will allow the spacecraft to communicate with Earth.


In Greenbelt, Maryland, NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center is overseeing the Lucy mission. "There has been a lot of hands-on work," said Donya Douglas-Bradshaw, Lucy project manager at the Goddard Space Flight Center. "This summer has flown by so quickly that it's hard to believe we're almost at the finish line."


In the last week of September, propulsion engineers completed the filling of Lucy's fuel tanks with approximately 1,600 pounds (725 kilograms) of liquid hydrazine and liquid oxygen, which account for approximately 40% of the spacecraft's total mass. During the mission, the fuel will be used for precise maneuvers that will propel Lucy to its asteroid destinations on schedule, while the solar arrays, which are each the width of a school bus, will be used to recharge the batteries that will power the spacecraft's instruments.


After being packed into the launch vehicle fairing's two halves, which will close around it like a clamshell, the Lucy spacecraft will be launched into space on a rocket. A "umbilical cord" will be used to communicate with the spacecraft once it has been encapsulated, and the Lucy team will be able to communicate with it electrically after that.


Lucy mission principal investigator Hal Levison, who works out of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said, "Launching a spacecraft is almost like sending a child off to college – you've done everything you possibly can to prepare them for that next big step on their own."


From the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, the encapsulated spacecraft will be transported to the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station's Vehicle Integration Facility, where it will be "mated" with a United Launch Alliance Atlas V 401 rocket. The Atlas V rocket is scheduled to launch from Space Launch Complex 41. Lucy will be transported outside of the Earth's atmosphere, where she will begin her long journey to the Trojan asteroids.


Engineers will power up the Lucy spacecraft in preparation for the mission a few days before it is scheduled to launch. It will take approximately 20 minutes to complete this process.


According to Jessica Lounsbury, the Lucy project systems engineer at Goddard, "the spacecraft will be in launch configuration, and the engineering team will continuously monitor its health and status to ensure Lucy is ready to go." "And then it's launch day," says the author.


Lucy's first launch attempt is scheduled for October 16 at 5:34 a.m. Eastern Daylight Time. In the morning of that day, the team will be "called to stations," which means that everyone will be expected to report to mission control and other stations in order to monitor the spacecraft and run through the entire launch countdown procedure. If weather or any other issues prevent the team from launching on that day, they will have additional launch opportunities starting the following day, according to the team.


The Lucy mission's principal investigator is based at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, which is also the home of the Lucy mission. Among the services provided by Goddard are overall mission management, systems engineering, as well as safety and mission assurance. The spacecraft was constructed by Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado. Lucy is the thirteenth mission in the Discovery Program of NASA. The Discovery Program is managed by NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, on behalf of the agency's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, which is based in Washington. The launch is overseen by NASA's Launch Services Program, which is based at Kennedy Space Center.

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