NASA's record-breaking Lucy asteroid mission gearing up for October launch

NASA's Lucy asteroid probe will begin its 12-year space journey next month.
Lucy will launch on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket, from Florida's Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Oct. 16. This landmark mission will see Lucy meet eight space rocks in the next 12 years.

"We're visiting most asteroids in history," Lucy principal investigator Hal Levison of the Southwest Research Institute, (SwRI), in Boulder, Colorado said at a press conference on Tuesday (Sept.28).

Levison said, "We're also going over another [record]": We're traveling farther from the sun that any other solar-powered spacecraft ever made," Levison continued.

Lucy will be awarded the Juno probe's distance crown. It has been orbiting Jupiter since July 2016 and Lucy will receive it.

Similar: Photos of asteroids deep space

The Trojan asteroids: A study

Lucy's primary science targets are Trojan asteroids. These space rocks loop around Jupiter's orbit and circle the sun. There are two types of Trojans. One "leads Jupiter around our star" and one "trails" the giant world.

Levison stated that while more than 7,000 Trojans have been identified by astronomers to date, the population of space rocks may be even greater, possibly surpassing the number of the main asteroid belts between Mars and Jupiter. Lucy will be the first spacecraft that can get a close look at any Trojan. Its observations could prove to be very useful.

In a Lucy mission description, SwRI representatives stated that "Planet formation models and evolution models suggest the Trojan asteroids may be remnant[s]] of the same primordial matter that formed the outer worlds and serve as time capsules since the birth of our Solar System over 4 billion years ago." These primitive bodies may provide crucial clues for understanding the history of the solar system. They could also help us to understand the origins and evolution of organic materials, and life on Earth.

Lucy's journey to Jupiter's neighbourhood will be long and complicated. The probe will fly by Earth twice, boosting its speed before it heads toward the huge planet. In April 2025, Lucy will make its first asteroid flyby. This will be an encounter with Donaldjohanson, a rock located in the asteroid belt.

That asteroid was named by the Lucy team after Donald Johanson (paleoanthropologist and co-discoverer) of the "Lucy" fossil, which is the bones of a 3.2 million-year-old female from the hominin Australopithecus. The fossil was then named after the Beatles song, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds". Levison explained that the logo of Lucy's mission in a diamond shape is a nod towards the song.

The spacecraft will eventually fly by four asteroids from August 2027 to December 2028, after it has been spotted by (52246) Donaldjohanson. Lucy will then make its way to "trailing", where it will encounter three more space rocks in March 2033.

Lucy will not linger on any of the asteroid targets.

"We aim almost directly towards them, flying within 600miles [1,000 km] of their surfaces. Lucy doesn't slow for these flybys; Lucy's moving anywhere from 3 to 5 miles [5-8 km] per second relative the Trojan asteroids," Keith Noll (Lucy project scientist at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Greenbelt) stated during Tuesday's press conference.

Noll stated that encounters occur quickly and the best data can be collected within a few hours of the nearest approach.

These data will be gathered using a variety of cameras and spectrometers and will provide information to the mission team on the structure, composition and activity of the targets.

During Tuesday's news conference, Lori Glaze of NASA's Planetary Science Division stated that the total NASA funding commitment for Lucy amounts to $981.1 million. This money will cover Lucy's primary mission, which ends in 2033.

The United Launch Alliance (ULA), Centaur stage of NASA's Lucy mission is being lifted by crane into the Vertical Integr Facility at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida on Thursday September 16, 2021. On Saturday, Oct. 16, the Lucy spacecraft will launch on a ULA Atlas V 401 Rocket. (Image credit: NASA/Kim Shiflett)

Get ready for liftoff

The Lucy team has been preparing the spacecraft for flight at NASA Kennedy Space Center, which is just next to Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, for the past eight weeks. This stretch has seen engineers and technicians achieve some significant milestones, such as the installation of Lucy’s high-gain antenna.

"There's been a lot more hands-on work," Donya Doug-Bradshaw (Lucy project manager at NASA Goddard) stated in a statement. "This summer flew by so quickly, it's hard for me to believe that we're almost at launch."

It will be busy in the coming weeks. The team will soon protect Lucy during launch by encapsulating her in its payload fairing. The encapsulated probe will then be taken to Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in October. It will then be stacked on top of its Atlas V rocket before the Oct. 16 launch.

A potential government shutdown will be looming over all these preparations, however. Federal funding will end on Thursday, Sept. 30, unless Congress can reach a fiscal agreement.

Glaze stated that NASA is trying to get an exemption that would allow Lucy to continue preparations for launch, even if the federal government shuts down in a few days.

Glaze stated that the request process was underway, but it is not complete yet. "We are keeping a very, really close watch on what's happening with Congress and the budget."

Nonetheless, she said that "everything's moving forward with the launch."