New details on Lucy mission to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids from NASA’s prelaunch briefing

Earlier today, in a virtual media briefing, the NASA Lucy mission director and other notable figures on the Lucy project shared additional information about the space agency’s historic mission to the Trojan asteroids.

Lucy will be launched on a ULA Atlas V rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station, Florida. Liftoff (T-0) is currently targeting 5:34 a.m. EDT on Saturday, October 18. NASA flight directors are optimistic about the weather, with conditions expected to be 90% favorable.

Hal Levison (Lucy’s principal investigator) gave us a few new details into how the Lucy spacecraft will operate as it moves around the inner solar system. In today’s briefing, Levison stated that, unlike other solar-powered spacecraft NASA has built before, Lucy will not go into a “standby mode” when traveling from asteroid-to-asteroid or at any point during its entire journey through the inner solar system. Its instruments and sensors will run throughout the entire life of the mission.

This is thanks to the giant decagonal solar arrays built by Northrop Grumman that are fixed on both ends of Lucy. The array, according to Donya Douglas-Bradshaw (Lucy’s project manager), has over 4,000 individual solar cells in each arm.

Image Credit: Lockheed Martin

Because of low light conditions around Jupiter, anything but immense solar arrays means bad news for a spacecraft. These arrays are some of the largest panels ever on a spacecraft. The entire thing spans four stories, which is about the size of a semi-truck trailer, or, if you’re a Star Wars fan, each arm is about equivalent to a TIE fighter.

Tweeted by LucyAsteroidAmbassadors on Star Wars day (May 4th) this year

Douglas-Bradshaw also confirmed that the total cost of the Lucy mission is $981 million dollars. Of this total, $560 million was for spacecraft development, $149 million was for launch, and $280 million will be spent on operations to support the 12-year main voyage.

Current tentative Lucy flyby dates:

April 20, 2025: First, the spacecraft will perform a flyby of the Main Belt asteroid Donaldjohanson – named after the paleoanthropologist who found the partial skeleton of 3.2-million-year-old hominid “Lucy,” after which the mission is named.

Aug. 12, 2027: Lucy will encounter the first two L4 (“leading”) Trojan asteroids, performing a flyby of Eurybates and its satellite, Queta.

Sept. 15, 2027: Lucy will flyby Polymele.

April 18, 2028: Lucy will flyby Leucus.

Nov. 11, 2028: Lucy will flyby Orus, the last of the L4 Trojan asteroids it will investigate.

March 3, 2033: Lucy will study two L5 (“trailing”) Trojan asteroids, Patroclus, and Menoetius.

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

Following the flyby observations of Patroclus and Menoetius, Lucy will have concluded its primary mission, and according to NASA, will stay in a stable orbit that allows the spacecraft to continue visiting the Trojan asteroid clusters for thousands, or even millions, of years.

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