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NASA’s Lucy Mission prepares for launch to Trojan asteroids

Washington [US] : NASA has tested the functions of Lucy, the agency’s first spacecraft to study Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, filled it with fuel, and is preparing to pack it into a capsule for launch on October 16.

Named after characters in Greek mythology, these asteroids circle the Sun in two swarms, with one group leading ahead of Jupiter in its path and the other trailing behind it. Lucy will be the first spacecraft to visit these asteroids. By studying these asteroids up close, scientists hope to hone their theories on how our solar system’s planets formed 4.5 billion years ago and why they ended up in their current configuration.

“With Lucy, we’re going to eight never-before-seen asteroids in 12 years with a single spacecraft,” said Tom Statler, Lucy project scientist at NASA Headquarters in Washington. “This is a fantastic opportunity for discovery as we probe into our solar system’s distant past.”

Following all pandemic protocols, Lucy team members have spent the past eight weeks at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, preparing the spacecraft for flight. Engineers have tested the spacecraft’s mechanical, electrical, and thermal systems and practised executing the launch sequence from the mission operations centers at Kennedy and Lockheed Martin Space in Littleton, Colorado. In early August, engineers installed the spacecraft’s high-gain antenna, its second most prominent feature after the expansive solar arrays, which will allow the spacecraft to communicate with Earth.

“There has been a lot of hands-on work,” said Donya Douglas-Bradshaw, Lucy project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. “This summer has gone by so fast; it’s hard to believe we’re nearly at launch.”

On September 18, propulsion engineers finished filling Lucy’s fuel tanks with approximately 1,600 pounds (725 kilograms) of liquid hydrazine and liquid oxygen, which make up 40% of the mass of the spacecraft. The fuel will be used for precise manoeuvres that will propel Lucy to its asteroid destinations on schedule, while the solar arrays – each the width of a school bus – will recharge the batteries that will power spacecraft instruments.

The Lucy spacecraft will soon be packed into the two halves of the launch vehicle fairing, which will close around it like a clamshell. After the spacecraft is encapsulated, the Lucy team will be able to communicate with it electrically through an “umbilical cord”.