Friday, April 30, 2021

Finding asteroids with Lucy

To date, few asteroids have been closely studied by a space mission.

The Lucy spacecraft, which will be launched in October, will greatly increase this number: during its 12-year mission, the probe is expected to visit eight asteroids!

This number is due to the very particular trajectory that Lucy will follow.

After leaving the Earth, the probe will perform two close flyovers of our planet, in 2022 and 2024, in order to acquire the necessary speed to reach the predetermined targets. In 2025 Lucy is expected to pass inside the Main Belt, where it will encounter the asteroid Donaldjohanson, named in honor of the discoverer of the australopithecus Lucy.

In 2027 the probe will reach the Lagrangian point L4 of Jupiter's orbit. Lagrangian points L4 and L5 are stable regions in which the overall gravitational attraction between the Sun and Jupiter vanishes. These regions, which follow and precede Jupiter by 60 degrees along its orbit (as shown in the image), are populated by groups of asteroids called Trojans.

In the region around point L4 Lucy will visit Eurybates and its satellite, Polymele, Leucus and finally Orus.

Once these five asteroids have been flown over, the probe will return to Earth to use it again as a gravitational sling and reach the region around point L5. Here it will visit Patroclus and its satellite, thus bringing the total number of asteroids studied to eight.

No mission in the history of space exploration has ever visited so many targets at one time.

Asteroids are primordial bodies, which have remained virtually unchanged since the origin of the Solar System. Having an overview of so many different objects will then allow astronomers to study the evolutionary history of the Solar System and the formation of planets.

Credit: NASA, Southwest Research Institute.

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