Lucy in the sky with asteroids: NASA’s mission to Jupiter’s Trojans

Like fossils here on Earth, asteroids, comets, and other primordial bodies act as time capsules to trace the origins of our solar system. NASA’s upcoming Lucy mission, currently scheduled for an October lift-off, is setting out to do just that.

What is Lucy’s mission?

The spacecraft will provide the first up-close look at the primeval leftovers from the formation and evolution of the solar system, Jupiter’s so-called Trojans. This collection of asteroids orbit the sun in the same ellipse as Jupiter, but in two loose groups. One group behind, and the other leading in front of the gas giant. They’ve been gravitationally trapped in Jupiter’s orbit since the early days of the solar system. Frozen in time. And no spacecraft has ever visited them.

NASA’s $1 billion mission, takes the name “Lucy” after the fossilized human ancestor who was discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. The skeleton provided unique insight into the evolution of humans at the time. Similarly, the Lucy space mission will ‘revolutionize’ our understanding of planetary origins and how the solar system came to be, NASA claims.

This time-lapsed animation shows the movements of the inner planets (Mercury, brown; Venus, white; Earth, blue; Mars, red), Jupiter (orange), and the two Trojan swarms (green) during the course of the Lucy mission.
Credits: NASA/Astronomical Institute of CAS/Petr Scheirich

How it gets to Jupiter’s trojans

After launch, the Lucy will make its first flyby of its mission by a main-belt asteroid in 2025. The space rock, about 4 km in diameter, is named 52246 Donaldjohanson after the paleontologist who discovered the fossil Lucy. Situated somewhere between Mars and Jupiter, the quick fly-by will primarily serve as a test for the spacecraft’s instruments before starting upon the main mission, as reported by the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), which helps oversee the spacecraft. In total, Lucy will spend 12 years traveling around the inner solar system using the gravitational pull of the Earth and Sun-like a slingshot as it performs fly-bys and collects data on Jupiter’s Trojans.

A diagram of Lucy’s trajectory among the Trojan asteroids that trail and lead Jupiter. (Image credit: Southwest Research Institute)

Though the mission length is only 12 years, the spacecraft itself will remain between the orbits of the Trojan asteroids and Earth for millions of years.

We obviously can’t give Lucy its own plaque, like Pioneer 10 and 11, or golden records like Voyager 1 and 2. However, unlike those interstellar spacecraft that had information for other possible civilizations, Lucy will contain messages for our own descendants.

What type of messages will Lucy have you ask? NASA engineers included an image of the solar system on the day of Lucy’s anticipated launch, the spacecraft’s mission trajectory, as well as quotes from Nobel laureates, Albert Einstein, Carl Sagan, Martin Luther King Jr, and all four members of The Beatles:

  • George Harrison: “When you’ve seen beyond yourself then you may find peace of mind is waiting there.” 
  • John Lennon: “And in the end the love you take is equal to the love you make.”
  • Sir Paul McCartney: “We all shine on . . . like the moon and the stars and the sun.” 
  • Sir Ringo Starr: “Peace and Love.”

It’s hoped that future humans will be able to retrieve the spacecraft and its messages, to only discover that it’s an artifact from days humanity just began to venture to other worlds.

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