CAPE CANAVERAL, Florida – A NASA spacecraft named Lucy blasted into the sky laden with diamonds Saturday morning on a 12-year mission to explore eight asteroids.
Seven mysterious space rocks are among swarms of asteroids that share the orbit of Jupiter, which are thought to be the original remnants of planet formation.
The Atlas V rocket blasted off before dawn, sending Lucy on a twisting flight spanning nearly 4 billion miles (6.3 billion km). The researchers became emotional as they described the successful launch – chief scientist Hal Levison said it was like watching the birth of a baby. “Go Lucy!” urge.
Lucy is named after the 3.2 million-year-old skeletal remains of a human ancestor found in Ethiopia nearly half a century ago. The discovery got its name from the 1967 Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” which prompted NASA to send the spacecraft to fly with the band members’ song and other shiny words of wisdom printed on a plaque. The spacecraft also carried a lab-grown diamond disc for one of its science instruments.
In a pre-recorded NASA video, drummer Ringo Starr paid tribute to the late John Lennon, who is credited with writing the song that inspired it all.
“I’m so excited – Lucy is going back to heaven with diamonds,” Starr said. “Johnny would love it.” “Anyway, if you meet anyone there, Lucy, give them peace and love from me.”
The paleoanthropologist behind Lucy’s fossil discovery, Donald Johansson, got goosebumps as he watched Lucy soar—”I’ll never look at Jupiter…he said he was filled with amazement at this “intersection between our past, our present, and our future.”
“The presence of a long-lived human ancestor spurred a mission that promises to add valuable information about the formation of our solar system is very exciting,” said Johansson, of Arizona State University, who traveled to Cape Canaveral to launch his first rocket.
Lucy’s $981 million mission is the first to target Jupiter’s so-called Trojan entourage: thousands – if not millions – of asteroids that share the gas giant’s orbit around the sun. Some Trojan asteroids precede Jupiter in its orbit, while others follow it.
Despite their orbits, Trojans are far from the planet and are mostly scattered far from each other. There is no fundamental chance that Lucy will be hit by someone while going over her targets, said Southwest Research Institute’s Levison, principal scientist on the expedition.
Lucy will swing across Earth next October and again in 2024 to get enough gravity to reach Jupiter’s orbit. On the way there, the spacecraft will pass the asteroid DonaldJohansson between Mars and Jupiter. The aptly named rock will be a warm-up for scientific instruments in 2025.
Bill Ingalls/NASA via AP
Chasing its power from two massive circular solar wings, Lucy will chase five asteroids into the leading group of Trojans in late 2020. The spacecraft will then zoom toward Earth for another gravitational assist in 2030. This will send Lucy back into the Trojan group The next, where it will surpass the last two goals in 2033 to get the record eight asteroids visited in a single mission.
It’s a complex, indirect path that initially made the head of the NASA science mission, Thomas Zurbuchen, shake his head. “You’ve got to be kidding. Is that possible?” He remembers the question.
Lucy will pass within 600 miles (965 kilometers) of each target; The largest is about 70 miles (113 kilometers) wide.
“Are there mountains? Valleys? Craters?” said Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University, who is in charge of Lucy’s black-and-white camera. “But we can’t wait to see what… the images will reveal these fossils from the formation of the solar system.”
NASA plans to launch another mission next month to test whether humans might be able to alter the asteroid’s orbit — training in the event of a lethal boulder on Earth in that direction.
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