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NASA’s Lucy Mission Prepares to Launch to the Trojan Asteroids

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The Lucy spacecraft on the launch pad at the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida. Credit: NASA, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

NASA’s announced on Thursday that its Lucy mission is ready for launch on Saturday, October 16. The mission is set to explore the Trojan asteroids that surround Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system.

The spacecraft will reach the asteroids by 2027, and provide the first in-depth, up-close look at the Trojans. Scientists are hoping that the information gleaned from the flybys will provide them with a better understanding of the infancy of our solar system.

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“I’ve been dreaming of sending a spacecraft to the Trojan asteroids for more than a decade,” Cathy Olkin, Lucy’s deputy principal investigator told Space.com. “This opportunity is just outstanding.”

The mission, whose budget barely scrapes the $1 billion dollar mark at $981 million,  is scheduled to launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida on Saturday, October 16 at 5:34 a.m. Eastern Time. The mission will make a total of six flybys, one in the Milky Way’s main asteroid belt, and the other five in Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids.

“We were amazingly lucky about being able to get such a rich set of targets,” Hal Levison, Lucy’s principal investigator told Space.com. “Some of these objects, they would be interesting objects to send spacecraft to even if that were the only target the spacecraft were going to.”

NASA’s Lucy mission hopes to reach asteroids Eurybates and Orus

Although scientist have identified the Trojan asteroids from Earth, they are incapable of deriving any detailed images of the objects without conducting a flyby mission such as Lucy. The information these asteroids could provide would potentially revolutionize scientists’ understanding of how the Milky Way formed, helping to piece together the reasons why certain planets have formed in areas of the galaxy that seem inexplicable.

The team behind Lucy is especially interested in the prospect of observing a pair of asteroids, one gray and one red, called Eurybates and Orus.

“If we found a pair like that, we know that they’ve had the same collisional history because they’re on the same orbits, they’re the same size, the same solar radiation — all that’s been the same for the last 4 billion years, give or take,” Levison said. “So if we saw differences between the two, we would know that was telling us something important about their intrinsic properties.”

Eurybates is named after Odysseus’s squire and herald during the Trojan War, and Orus is named after the first Trojan king.

Levison said that the mission will explore the early days of the galaxy by seeking to better understand planetary collisions, which are a key aspect in planet formation. “We see the biggest member of this population, the brightest of the guys in the clump, and then around it is one of the smallest things, so comparing those two objects is going to be interesting too,” he said.

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