CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. Asteroid enthusiasts, NASA is set to launch a series of spaceships to tour and even crush some of the solar system’s most attractive space rocks.
The robotic pioneer named Lucy is the first, taking off this weekend for a 12-year cruise to asteroid swarms near Jupiter – unexplored time capsules from the dawn of the solar system. And yes, there will be diamonds in the sky with Lucy, on one of her science instruments, along with lyrics from other Beatles songs.
NASA is targeting the hours before dawn on Saturday for takeoff.
Barely a month later, an impactor spacecraft named Dart will pursue a double asteroid closer to home. The mission will end with Dart ramming the main asteroid’s moon to change its orbit, a test that could one day save Earth from an incoming rock.
Next summer, a spaceship will be launched into a world of rare metals – a nickel and iron asteroid that could be the exposed core of a once planet. A pair of smaller companion craft – the size of a suitcase – will detach towards another set of double asteroids.
And in 2023, a space capsule will be parachuted into the Utah desert with the first NASA asteroid samples, collected last year by the Osiris-Rex excavation robot. The samples come from Bennu, a rock strewn with rubble and boulders that could endanger Earth in a few centuries.
“Each of these asteroids that we visit tells our story … the story of us, the story of the solar system,” said NASA Chief Science Officer Thomas Zurbuchen.
There’s nothing better for understanding how our solar system formed 4.6 billion years ago, said Lucy’s lead scientist Hal Levison of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “These are the fossils of the formation of the planet.”
China and Russia team up on an asteroid mission later this decade. The UAE is also planning an asteroid shutdown in the coming years.
Advances in technology and design are behind this flurry of asteroid missions, as well as the growing interest in asteroids and the danger they pose to Earth. One need only look at the moon and the impact craters created by asteroids and meteorites to realize the threat, Zurbuchen said.
The Dart spacecraft, due for launch on November 24, promises to be a spectacular exercise in planetary defense. If all goes well, the high-speed crash will happen next fall just 11 million kilometers (7 million miles) in view of telescopes on the ground.
The much longer $ 981 million Lucy mission, the first in Jupiter’s so-called Troy entourage, targets eight unprecedented asteroids.
Lucy aims to sweep seven of the countless Trojan asteroids that precede and follow Jupiter on the path of the giant gas planet around the sun. Thousands of these reddish or dark gray rocks have been detected, and several thousand more are likely lurking in the two clusters. Trapped by the gravitational forces of Jupiter and the sun, the Trojans are said to be the cosmic remnants of the formation of the outer planets.
“This is what makes Trojans special. If our ideas are correct, they formed throughout the outer solar system and are now in a place where we can go and study them, ”said Levison.
Before encountering the Trojans, Lucy will pass a smaller, more ordinary object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Scientists consider this 2025 flyby to be a dress rehearsal.
Three flyovers of Earth will be necessary for Lucy to reach Jupiter’s two Trojan horse swarms by the end of the mission in 2033.
The spacecraft will be so far from the sun – up to 530 million miles (850 million kilometers) away – that massive solar panels are needed to provide enough power. Each of Lucy’s twin circular wings spans 24 feet (7 meters) in diameter, eclipsing the spaceship nestled in the middle like the body of a moth.
Lucy intends to drop within 600 miles (965 kilometers) of each targeted asteroid.
“Each of these flyovers has to be close to perfect,” Zurbuchen said.
The size of the seven Trojans ranges from a 64-kilometer (40-mile) asteroid and its one-kilometer (1-half-mile) moon to a large specimen exceeding 100 kilometers. It is the beauty of studying these rocks named after the heroes of the Trojan War from Greek mythology and, more recently, modern Olympic athletes. Any differences between them will have happened during their training, Levison said, offering clues to their origins.
Unlike so many NASA missions, including the Upcoming Dart, short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test, Lucy is not an acronym. The spacecraft is named after the fossilized remains of a human ancestor discovered in Ethiopia in 1974; the 3.2 million year old woman takes her name from the 1967 Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”.
“The Lucy’s fossil has really transformed our understanding of human evolution, and that’s what we want to do is transform our understanding of the evolution of the solar system by looking at all of these different objects,” Cathy said. Olkin of the Southwest Research Institute, the deputy senior scientist who came up with the name of the spacecraft.
One of his scientific instruments actually has a lab-grown diamond disc totaling 6.7 carats.
And there’s another connection to the Fab Four, a plaque attached to the spaceship features lines from songs they wrote, along with quotes from other luminaries. From a John Lennon single: We all shine on. . . like the moon and the stars and the sun.
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