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NASA is ready to study some terribly old asteroids



Photo credit: NASA
Photo credit: NASA

From Folk Mechanics

  • NASA will launch a bold mission to explore Trojan asteroids in 2021

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  • Trojan asteroids are divided into two clusters that support Jupiter along its orbit.

  • Researchers suspect that these primitive rock bodies may be some of the oldest objects in the solar system.

In October 2021, NASA plans to launch a rocket to study a unique group of Asteroids near Jupiter. Mission Lucy – named after that famous skeleton of human ancestors discovered by Donald Johanson – will explore the origins of the building blocks of life among some of the most primitive objects in the solar system: the Trojan asteroids.

Now, the mission is one step closer to getting started, despite the devastating spread of COVID-19 this year.

“No one predicted we would build a spaceship in these circumstances,” Lucy Principal Investigator Hal Levison, of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, said in a press release. “But I was once again impressed by the creativity and resilience of this team to overcome any challenge set before them.”

🛰 Space is a journey. Let’s explore it together.

Last week, NASA completed a critical review of the Mission System Integration. This means that researchers and engineers have been cleared to begin the testing and integration phase of the project. Later this year, independent reviewers will conduct another mission study.

Trojan asteroids are two groups of rocky bodies that surround the sun along the same orbit as Jupiter. Scientists are interested in studying them because they are time capsules from the formation of the solar system and can be made from the same materials as some of its outer planets.

Lucy will oscillate along each cluster of Trojan asteroids with the ability to explore three main types of asteroids: C-, P- and type D asteroids. Carbon asteroids, type C are similar to those found in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, while P- and D-type asteroids are like the types of rock bodies found in the Kuiper Belt outside Neptune.

There are seven target asteroids that the spacecraft will explore in depth. According to NASA, four of these belong to asteroid binary systems.

Photo Credit: Southwestern Research Institute
Photo Credit: Southwestern Research Institute

The spacecraft will design craters and identify key minerals on the asteroid’s surface, remotely investigate interiors and take other detailed observations of rocky objects – including color, mass and density. Lucy will also hunt for asteroids that may have rings, or even their own moons.

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The 45-meter spacecraft will have a set of massive solar panels and four instruments to help it explore these elementary objects. The L’Ralph instrument – yes, that’s its name – consists of an infrared spectrometer and a color image. Another camera called L’LORRI will take detailed high-resolution asteroid photos.

L’TES is a thermal emission spectrometer that will help researchers understand things like how asteroids are able to store heat – a critical key that signals what can be done. A high gain antenna attached to the spacecraft will use the Doppler shift to estimate the mass of each asteroid it studies.

Lucy will also have a number of cameras on board to help guide her in the field of asteroids. To achieve each of his objectives, Lucy will have to perform a series of daring maneuvers, and in some cases, she will be piloted by a navigator back to Earth.

During his 12-year mission, scientists hope Lucy will help solve two major mysteries, including: How did the solar system form? And, did the buildings of life go to Earth on the back of asteroids and meteorites?

Lucy may be able to detect.

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