In the seemingly never-ending mission to search for artificial life and explore the space frontier, NASA has yet another impressive feat.
In October, the space agency launched Lucy: a spacecraft set to explore Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids and report on possible findings.
The Search for Solar System Components Continues
The launch, which took place at NASA’s base in Cape Canaveral, was performed thanks to an Atlas V rocket. Lucy is carrying a diamond beam splitter into the stars. Named the Lucy Thermal Emission Spectrometer, the splitter is expected to detect infrared radiation, which will be used to map the possible temperatures of asteroid surfaces.
Named after an ancient fossil of a pre-human ancestor, Lucy is a groundbreaking project. It will become the first solar-powered spacecraft to perform operations so far from the sun. It is also expected to observe up to eight asteroids - more than any probe before. The probe is expected to make three flybys around the Earth, which will offer gravity assistance. By doing so, Lucy will be the first spacecraft to come back to the planet’s vicinity after heading out to the outer solar system.
All in all, Lucy’s mission is expected to last 12 years. Its first encounter is expected to occur in 2025, with Donaldjohanson, an asteroid located between Jupiter and Mars. The asteroid was named after Donald Johanson, the paleontologist who discovered the original Lucy fossil.
From 2027 to 2033, Lucy is expected to discover seven other Trojan asteroids. Five of those will be in the swarm leading to Jupiter, while the other two will follow the solar system’s largest planet.
The Trojan asteroids are materials left over following the formation of the solar system’s largest planets. Besides Jupiter, these asteroids contain residue from Uranus, Saturn, and even Neptune. The asteroids are thought to be about 7,000 in number, and scientists believe they hold information about the physical and chemical compositions of the disk that formed all planets in the solar system.
A Faulty Solar Array Hiccup
While Lucy was hailed as a groundbreaking achievement, not everything went smoothly. Thomas Zurbuchen, an associate administrator of science at NASA, said a few days following the launch that Lucy had deployed both of its solar arrays after the launch; however, NASA received confirmation that only one of the solar arrays had been deployed successfully.
The spacecraft itself is over 46 feet in length, thanks in most part to its large solar panels. The panels ensure the spacecraft can receive proper power, especially for its instruments; however, Lucy also has fuel reserves to help it evade particles on its trajectory.
Speaking at a press conference, Joan Salute, an associate director for flight programs at NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said:
“Lucy will be NASA's first mission to travel this far away from the sun without nuclear power. In order to generate enough energy, Lucy has two very large circular solar arrays that open up like Chinese fans. These open up autonomously and simultaneously.”
An official NASA statement added that the spacecraft was still healthy and that NASA’s experts were examining all available engineering data to establish the status of the arrays’ deployment. She added that the functional solar array was generating almost the expected power, even without the other wing. With the available power, Lucy is expected to function as it should.
Lucy Still Works for Now
A week ago, NASA released an update confirming that it still saw issues with the non-functional solar array. In part, the statement read:
“Analysis indicates that the array is between 75% and 95% deployed. It is currently being held in place by a lanyard, specifically designed to help unfurl the arrays during deployment. An anomaly response team continues to work on establishing what caused the solar array to not fully deploy. NASA and SwRI are evaluating a range of options, including the possibility of leaving the array in its current state.”
SwRI is the Southwest Research Institute. Located in Boulder, it is the primary base of Hal Levison, Lucy’s top investigator.
For now, the non-functional array will not deploy until at least November 16. However, both NASA and the SwRI are confident that everything on Lucy will work as it should.
The two agencies have claimed that Lucy and all systems are working and responding as they should, save for the solar array issue. The spacecraft has already gone through some of the milestones set by NASA and has performed various maneuvers.
It will be interesting to see how Lucy continues, especially with the solar array issue. Many enthusiasts will wait to see the data that the spacecraft brings.