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EXPLAINED: Lucy And The Marvels Of Our Universe. How Nasa Probe Is Pursuing An Origin Story For The Ages

An Atlas V rocket with the Lucy spacecraft aboard is seen in this 2 minute and 30 second exposure photograph as it launches from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on October 16, 2021,  (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

An Atlas V rocket with the Lucy spacecraft aboard is seen in this 2 minute and 30 second exposure photograph as it launches from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida on October 16, 2021, (NASA/Bill Ingalls)

The Nasa probe is intended to reveal clues about the solar system through a study of the so-called "fossils" of planetary formation

The origins of our universe are shrouded in mystery and lost in time. To throw light on one important aspect of the cosmos as we know it, US space agency Nasa has dispatched its ‘Lucy’ probe all the way to where Jupiter lies as part of a mission to take a look at “time capsules from the birth of our solar system more than 4 billion years ago". The Trojan asteroid swarms that accompany the planet are thought to hold clues to how the outer planets of the solar system were formed. Here’s what you need to know.

What Is The Mission?

On October 16, Nasa launched its first mission to study what are known as the Trojan asteroids, which move in two packs around the Sun in the same orbit as Jupiter, one ahead of the gas giant and the other trailing it.

Nasa said that there is reason to believe that these Trojan asteroids are remnants of the material that formed the giant planets that occupy the outer solar system and that studying them can unveil the story of their formation as well as that of the solar system’s evolution.

“Lucy is rich with opportunity to learn more about these mysterious Trojan asteroids and better understand the formation and evolution of the early solar system," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for the Science Mission Directorate at the Nasa headquarters.

Given that the Trojans are believed to be the remnants of our early solar system, Nasa scientists say they represent the so-called “fossils" of planetary formation.

What Are The Lengths Nasa Is Going With This Mission?

The Lucy mission has an initial timespan of 12 years over which period Nasa will spend more than USD 950 million to run it. The probe is tasked with flying by one main-belt asteroid and seven Trojan asteroids which, Nasa said, makes it “the agency’s first single spacecraft mission in history to explore so many different asteroids".

While it has launched at the end of 2021, it will keep its rendezvous with the first swarm, or leading group, of Trojan asteroids only in 2027/28, and follow that up with a tour of the trailing cluster in 2033.

Moving at a speed of about 108,000 kmph, the probe — it was launched strapped to a Atlas V rocket operated by the

United Launch Alliance from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida — is on a flight path that will first see it orbit the Sun before zooming back towards Earth in October 2022 to take advantage of what is known as a “gravity assist".

In fact, the one in 2022 will be the first of such gravity assists and will help the probe accelerate and take a trajectory beyond the orbit of Mars. The probe will again swing back towards Earth for a second gravity assist in 2024, this one intended to propel it towards an asteroid — called Donaldjohanson -located within the solar system’s main asteroid belt in 2025.

From there, Lucy will then head towards the first Trojan swarm with the expected date of arrival being some time in 2027. The spacecraft will be accomplishing four targeted flybys of this swarm before againa heading back to Earth for — you guessed right — a third gravity boost in 2031. That will “catapult it to the trailing swarm of Trojans for a 2033 encounter", Nasa said.

Through all this, the total travel distance it would have covered is over 6 billion km.

Why Has It Been Named The Lucy Mission?

Its naming has to do with the task it has been assigned, which is to delve into the “fossils" of the solar system. The probe takes its name for the famous human fossil that was unearthed in 1974 in Ethiopia in 1974 and named “Lucy" by the paleontologists who discovered it.

Just as that “fossilised skeleton of one of our earliest known hominin ancestors" helped us understand a lot about where our species came from, Nasa hopes Lucy will unveil valuable information about how our solar system. In fact, the Donaldjohanson asteroid that Lucy will visit on its way to the Trojan asteroids is named for the researcher Donald Johanson, who had discovered the Lucy skeleton.

“It will still be several years before we get to the first Trojan asteroid, but these objects are worth the wait and all the effort because of their immense scientific value. They are like diamonds in the sky," said Hal Levison, Lucy principal investigator, referencing the famous Beatles song with which the Nasa probe invokes an unmistakable association given its name and how it has sped off into the sky for its search.

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first published:October 18, 2021, 17:39 IST