NASA’s proposed Lucy mission to study ‘fossils’ of planets’ formation

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Artist’s concept of Lucy mission. Image Credit: Southwest Research Institute

A NASA mission to study five primitive asteroids (referred to as Trojans) orbiting near Jupiter, has entered its concept design study phase. The spacecraft, named Lucy after the iconic hominin skeleton, will try to answer essential questions about the origin of our solar system.

“The Trojans are objects that formed throughout the outer solar system. Thus, they contain important clues about how the giant planets formed. In addition, the Trojans were likely placed on their current orbits by the migration of the planets, and so they will also tell us about that process as well,” Harold F. Levison, the Principal Investigator for Lucy at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), told astrowatch.net.

The Lucy mission was awarded $3 million by NASA to conduct concept design studies and analyses. The U.S. space agency is scheduled to decide in September 2016 as to whether-or-not to continue the development of the Lucy spacecraft. If selected by NASA for further development funding under the agency’s Discovery Program, the mission would launch in 2021 and arrive at its destination in 2027 to visit three asteroids with a final encounter in planned for 2032.

“Dynamic and exciting missions like these hold promise to unravel the mysteries of our solar system and inspire future generations of explorers. It’s an incredible time for science, and NASA is leading the way,” John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said about Lucy and other proposals.

If selected, Lucy will use a suite of high-heritage remote sensing instruments to map the geology, surface color and composition, thermal and other physical properties of the chosen targets at close range. It will also map the color, composition and regolith properties of the surface and determine the distribution of minerals, ices and organics species.

“We will determine the density and composition of these important objects.  We will also determine the sizes of their craters, which tell us how these objects grew,” Levison said, he also commented on what he believed will be discovered once the spacecraft arrives at its location. “We will likely find organics.”

The spacecraft’s payload is expected to include three complementary imaging and mapping instruments, including a color imaging and infrared mapping spectrometer, a high-resolution visible imager, and a thermal infrared spectrometer. Levison hopes that the probe will acquire images with higher resolution than 10 m/px.

 

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