Lucy readies for liftoff

Launching October 16th at 5:34 AM Est from SLC-41 at Canaveral Space Force Station

NASA’s first spacecraft to study Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids sits ready, loaded with fuel and all functions tested. It’s prepared to be packed inside the capsule for launch, which will occur Saturday Oct. 16th. Lucy will be going to eight never before seen asteroids on its twelve year mission. By studying these asteroids up close scientists are hoping to hone their theories as to how our solar system formed it’s planets 4.5 billion years ago, and why they ended up where they are today.

Photo by: Kyle Montgomery – NHS

On September 18th the propulsion engineers finished filling the fuel tanks of Lucy. Almost 1,600 pounds of liquid hydrazine and liquid oxygen make up forty percent of the total mass of the spacecraft. This fuel will be used for precise maneuvers that will propel Lucy to its asteroid destinations while two solar arrays, each the width of a school bus will recharge the batteries that power the instruments onboard the spacecraft. The next step will be to pack Lucy into the two halves of the launch vehicle, or the fairings (Seen above). Once the spacecraft is encapsulated, the Lucy team will be able to communicate with the craft electrically through and umbilical cord. This is how they will continue to monitor the health of the vehicle up until launch. In Early October the spacecraft inside those fairings will be transported to the VIF (Vehicle Integration Facility) at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station where it will be mated with the ULA (United Launch Alliance) Atlas V 401 rocket. More tests and checks will ensure that nothing is amiss for launching Lucy out of Earth’s atmosphere as she begins the journey to the Trojan asteroids.

Lucy and one fairing half. Photo by: Kyle Montgomery – NHS

Borrowing their name from Greek mythology, the Trojan asteroids orbit the sun in two swarms. One that is ahead of Jupiter, our largest planet in this solar system, and the second swarm that lags behind the planet. With about seven thousand Trojan asteroids, the largest being 160 miles across, they represent the left over materials still floating around the giant planets of our solar system, including Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. Though these asteroids are sharing an orbit with Jupiter they are almost as far away from the planet as the planet is to the sun according to NASA. Lucy will fly by an asteroid in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, then explore seven more of the Trojans over the course of its twelve year mission. Lucy will also end up swinging back into Earths orbit at three separate times using Earth’s gravity to assist a slingshot maneuver to get it on the right path. This will make the Lucy spacecraft the first to travel to Jupiter and return to Earth.

If you’re wondering where the name Lucy comes from then we have the answer for you. Unlike many launches, Lucy is not an acronym, just a name. Lucy borrows its name from the Lucy fossil, the remains of an ancient human ancestor discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. The skeletal remains helped researchers understand aspects of human evolution by piecing together missing pieces. NASA Lucy team members are hoping this mission will do the same, only about our solar system. Both the fossil and this mission are also a nod to the Beatles tune, “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which is why the mission logo includes a diamond.