a NASA mission to take a closer look at the relics of our Solar System


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Does 4.6 billion years arose from a cloud of gas and stardust our Solar system. Everything seems to indicate that, in those first moments, what would later be our ‘peaceful’ cosmic neighborhood was all chaos, with clashes everywhere. Of that ‘primordial material‘in collision the present planets arose. However, scientists think that part of those ‘bricks’ were left wandering through space, many trapped in an incredible balance between the gravity of the planets and that of the Sun. These are the so-called trojan asteroids. And this weekend NASA will send the first mission to these ancient relics that could have the pieces of the complete puzzle of the history of the Solar System.

The one baptized as mission Lucy -in honor of the ‘grandmother of humanity’, the hominid of the species Australopithecus afarensis who lived 3.5 to 3.2 million years ago in Ethiopia and whose remains are the oldest recovered by modern man – has the objective of looking for the first time closely at the Trojan asteroids that accompany Jupiter on its path around from the Sun and from which NASA scientists are sure they can get a lot of information from them.

“There are millions of bodies in the Solar System that have not yet been discovered,” he said at a press conference Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate – and many of them may have the history of our origins written down. In fact, other recent missions have targeted other asteroids, such as the US space agency’s OSIRIS-REx mission, which is back to Earth after collecting rock samples. Determining, one of those classified as ‘potentially dangerous’ and whose trajectory has just been recalculated.

Lucy’s dance

If all goes according to plan, Lucy will launch next Saturday at 11 AM (Spanish time), although it could be delayed until Monday. “But the best forecasts will be given just on Saturday, with clear skies and, at the moment, a 90% chance of takeoff”, they assured from NASA. The odds drop to 50% for Sunday morning, although they are up 60% heading into Monday. “We are confident that we can stick to the schedule.”

The launch will mark the beginning of a journey that will last at least 12 years and where Lucy will visit seven asteroids: six Trojans -four of them members of two binary systems-, plus one from the asteroid belt something like ‘gift’. To do this, it will ‘lean’ twice on Earth’s gravity, in a kind of ‘dance’ measured almost to the millimeter that will take it to its first meeting in 2025. The lucky one, a small main belt asteroid named Donaldjohanson in honor, precisely, of the discoverer of the Lucy fossil. The next stops will be Eurybates -and its satellite-, Polymele, White and Orus, which will occur between 2027 and 2028. After relying on Earth’s gravity again, Lucy will visit the Trojans that precede the gas giant in orbit, encountering the binary system Patroclus-Menoetius.

This diagram illustrates Lucy's orbital path.  The trajectory of the spacecraft (green) is shown in a reference frame where Jupiter remains stationary.  After launch in October 2021, Lucy has two near-Earth flybys before finding her Trojan targets.  In the L4 cloud, Lucy will fly over (3548) Eurybates (white) and its satellite, (15094) Polymele (pink), (11351) Leucus (red), and (21900) Orus (red) from 2027 to 2028. After passing again on Earth, Lucy will visit the L5 cloud and meet the binary (617) Patroclus-Menoetius (pink) in 2033. As an added bonus, in 2025 on the way to L4, Lucy flies by a small main belt asteroid , (52246) Donaldjohanson (white), named for the discoverer of the Lucy fossil.
This diagram illustrates Lucy’s orbital path. The trajectory of the spacecraft (green) is shown in a reference frame where Jupiter remains stationary. After launch in October 2021, Lucy has two near-Earth flybys before finding her Trojan targets. In the L4 cloud, Lucy will fly over (3548) Eurybates (white) and its satellite, (15094) Polymele (pink), (11351) Leucus (red), and (21900) Orus (red) from 2027 to 2028. After passing again on Earth, Lucy will visit the L5 cloud and meet the binary (617) Patroclus-Menoetius (pink) in 2033. As an added bonus, in 2025 on the way to L4, Lucy flies by a small main belt asteroid , (52246) Donaldjohanson (white), named for the discoverer of the Lucy fossil. – Southwest Research Institute

With all your instruments on board you will analyze type C, D and P asteroids. Those of class D and P – the Trojans – are dark reddish in color and resemble those found in the Kuiper belt, populated by icy bodies that extend beyond the orbit of Neptune. Type Cs are found mainly in the outer parts of the main asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter.

“Lucy is going to help us understand the diversity of all these bodies,” he said. Hal Levinson, principal investigator of the lucy mission and who explained that all Trojans are abundant in carbon compounds and that, under an insulating layer of dust, they are also rich in water and other volatile substances. “We hope to make a lot of scientific discoveries on this trip.”

Those responsible pointed out that no other space mission in history has launched to so many different destinations in independent orbits around our Sun. “When they told me the idea for this mission, I thought ‘It’s impossible!’ Zurbuchen pointed out. But this incredible team has made it happen. Thus, Lucy will show us, for the first time, the diversity of the primordial bodies that built our stellar environment.

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