June 29, 2022

Meet the Latest NASA Mission, Lucy: The Asteroid Spacecraft

NASA’s latest mission, Lucy, is set to launch this week. Named after the famous fossil found in Africa in 1974, Lucy will embark on an ambitious 12-year mission to explore six distant asteroids. The spacecraft was originally supposed to be launched back in 2005 but it has since been delayed due to budget cuts and redesigns. This $800 million project is finally ready for liftoff and NASA hopes that it will provide valuable insight into our solar system’s origins.

Prior to this mission, the spacecraft was known as the “Discovery Program’s Near Earth Asteroid Rendezvous (NEAR) Shoemaker”, however in 2012 NASA renamed it after one of humanity’s great discoveries. The last probe named after a famous fossil was Curiosity, which touched down on Mars in August 2012. To date, NEAR Shoemaker is the most expensive mission ever launched by NASA as it cost $223 million, including the launch costs.

Lucy’s primary scientific objective will be to visit a primitive asteroid and collect surface samples for analysis. The spacecraft will then return to Earth in 2033 with its precious cargo allowing scientists to study these objects’ composition and structure. Another secondary objective of this mission is to study the Trojan asteroids that orbit along with Jupiter. These asteroids are thought to be relics left over from when the planets in our solar system formed billions of years ago, which means studying them could reveal more about how they were created and subsequently how the Earth was also formed.

Originally, Lucy’s trajectory would have meant that the spacecraft would come within 12,400 miles of an asteroid called Didymos B. But NASA has now adjusted Lucy’s trajectory to make it more efficient and the revised path is expected to bring it within 3,100 miles of Didymos B. The spacecraft will also spend 20 months in orbit around the main body of Didymos.

The launch of Lucy aboard a ULA Atlas 5 rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida is scheduled to take place on Thursday, October 24th at around 5:30PM ET. NASA will provide a live webcast of the mission’s progress via their website starting about 15 minutes before liftoff. Check back with us here at RocketSTEM for more updates on the launch.

Didymos is part of a binary system along with Didymos A, an 80-mile wide asteroid about 780 million miles from Earth. NASA thinks that it will be possible for Lucy to approach within 6,000 miles of Didymos B in June 2027, but the spacecraft will also fly by Didymos A at an altitude of about 1,900 miles some five months later.