NASA’s Lucy robot will fly to the farthest-moving asteroids you’ve ever seen

It’s the riskiest moon-walking mission ever, and we’re a good decade away from thinking about it: NASA scientists on Thursday fired the launcher and Saturn V rocket to fly robotic Lucy to some of…

NASA’s Lucy robot will fly to the farthest-moving asteroids you’ve ever seen

It’s the riskiest moon-walking mission ever, and we’re a good decade away from thinking about it: NASA scientists on Thursday fired the launcher and Saturn V rocket to fly robotic Lucy to some of the fastest-moving asteroids to date.

These fast-moving moons have average speeds of more than 10,000 mph and can travel farther than the moon in just one year, said lead scientist Katherine Sensinger, NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

Lucy’s trip was made possible by NASA’s new Space Launch System, which carries cargo, astronauts and the Deep Space Climate Observatory, the solar-sail mission and it’s a full-size replica of the Daedalus, one of Saturn’s moons.

The Launch Services Rocket System will fly Lucy to “Trojan” asteroids or bodies that have been broken up by collisions with other objects, such as one that jettisoned its (telescope-destroying) tail in 1980, Sensinger said.

Abrasive asteroids are too rocky or rocky-ish to visit directly because they are too large, he said. “What we have is this sort of Frankenstein moon.”

The scientists estimate that 30-60 asteroids have surfaces in the “Trojan” range, according to a JPL news release.

With NASA’s rocket, “the stage travels at supersonic speeds,” Sensinger said. A space tug will tow Lucy to an orbital slot about eight years after launch, so it will become one of the fastest-moving moons ever.

It’s the first spacecraft in history to orbit an asteroid, but it won’t be the last. “I think we can achieve targets that would be safe for humans,” Sensinger said. “It’s not that far out.”

Lucy would be launched in 2020, but it will be 10 years before its mission to the Trojan asteroids, which is listed on NASA’s “Potentially Hazardous Asteroids” list. So it could have a shorter mission, possibly another year or two after launch, or something shorter, she said.

For several months before launch, Lucy will cruise through Earth’s orbit and at perihelion — the point in orbit closest to the sun — a few days after it launches.

Lucy will carry a ROSINA lander that will take observations from the field of view of a telescope. Its instrument suite includes an infra-red laser to map the landscape and an optical frequency detector to observe surrounding celestial objects.

Lucy is 7½ feet long, 5½ feet wide and 10 feet tall. It’s scheduled to make two orbits around the Earth in 2021.

From the craft’s perspective, when traveling at supersonic speeds, “there are going to be a lot of maneuvers and ellipses because of the perturbations,” Sensinger said. “You have to call the engineers to make sure the orbit is exactly where you want it to be.”

On Friday, as Lucy separated from the launch vehicle, the team spotted a neighborhood solar flare that would impair the probe’s trajectory. But Sensinger said, it will be safe enough to continue with the launch, which she said wasn’t an issue.

NASA plans to launch a heavy-lift rocket and Orion spacecraft to deep space in the 2030s. It aims to send humans to an asteroid to visit it and bring back some samples.

The new lander will follow by a few months, but it also will get a seat on the flight of Orion.

“We’re hoping to learn a lot about the origins of the solar system,” Sensinger said. “I think that’s very exciting.”

Leave a Comment