NASA’s asteroid hunter Lucy soars into the sky with diamonds


CAP CANAVERAL, Florida – A NASA spacecraft named Lucy exploded in the sky with diamonds on Saturday morning in a 12-year quest to explore eight asteroids.

Seven of the mysterious space rocks are among the asteroid swarms sharing Jupiter’s orbit, believed to be the pristine remnants of the planetary formation.

An Atlas V rocket took off before dawn, sending Lucy on a detour of nearly 6.3 billion kilometers. Researchers became moved as they described the successful launch – lead scientist Hal Levison said it was like witnessing the birth of a child. “Come on Lucy! He insisted.

Lucy is named after the 3.2 million year old skeletal remains of a human ancestor found in Ethiopia almost half a century ago. This find takes its name from the 1967 Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, prompting NASA to send the spacecraft soaring with lyrics from band members and words of wisdom from other luminaries printed on a plaque. . The spacecraft also carried a disc made of lab-grown diamonds for one of its scientific instruments.

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In a video pre-recorded for NASA, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr paid tribute to his late colleague John Lennon, credited with writing the song that inspired it all.

“I’m so excited – Lucy is going back to the sky with diamonds. Johnny is going to love this, ”Starr said. “Anyway, if you meet anyone up there, Lucy, give them peace and love from me.”

The paleoanthropologist behind the discovery of Lucy’s fossil, Donald Johanson, got goosebumps watching Lucy fly away – “I’ll never look at Jupiter the same way again … absolutely breathtaking.” He said he was amazed by this “intersection of our past, our present and our future”.

“That a human ancestor who lived so long ago spurred a mission that promises to add valuable information about the formation of our solar system is incredibly exciting,” said Johanson, Arizona State University, who traveled to Cape Canaveral for its first rocket launch.

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 vast orbit around the sun. Some Trojan asteroids precede Jupiter in its orbit, while others follow it.

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Despite their orbits, Trojans are far from the planet and for the most part scattered far from each other. So there’s virtually no chance that Lucy will get run over by one as she passes her targets, said Levison of the Southwest Research Institute, the mission’s lead scientist.

Lucy will pass Earth next October and again in 2024 to get enough gravitational force to get to Jupiter’s orbit. On the way, the spacecraft will pass the asteroid Donaldjohanson between Mars and Jupiter. The well-named rock will be used as a warm-up in 2025 for scientific instruments.

Drawing energy from two huge circular solar wings, Lucy will chase five asteroids in the trojan lead pack in the late 2020s. The spacecraft will then zoom out to Earth for another gravitational assist in 2030. This will do this. will send Lucy back to the group of Trojans, where she will pass the last two targets in 2033 for a record eight asteroids visited in a single mission.

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It’s a complicated and roundabout path that first made NASA’s science mission chief Thomas Zurbuchen shake his head. “Are you kidding. Is it possible?” he remembers asking.

Lucy will pass within 600 miles (965 kilometers) of each target; the largest is about 70 miles (113 kilometers) in diameter.

“Are there mountains? Valleys? Pits? Mesas? Who knows? I’m sure we’ll be surprised, ”said Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University, responsible for Lucy’s black and white camera. “But we can’t wait to see what … the images reveal about 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 an asteroid’s orbit – handy in case Earth ever has a killer rock headed that way.

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The Associated Press’s Department of Health and Science receives support from the Department of Science Education at Howard Hughes Medical Institute. The AP is solely responsible for all content.

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