On the 16th of October, NASA launched a robotic mission called Lucy. For the next twelve years, the spaceship, powered by two giant solar arrays, will be exploring and collecting information about the “Trojan” asteroids located in Jupiter’s orbit.
This group of asteroids is named “Trojan” because the astronomers who first discovered them named each of them after heroes of Homer’s Iliad.
What makes this mission unique?
There are a couple of reasons this project differs from others. Lucy is the first spacecraft that is powered by solar energy to venture so far from the Sun. Secondly, these asteroids represent the final unexplored region of asteroids in our solar system. More excitingly, they may contain the key to the understanding of the creation of our solar system and life on Earth. In fact, the mission was named after the australopithecine skeleton discovered in 1974 named Lucy. This discovery was key in our understanding of human evolution. NASA is hoping that this spaceship will be able to do the same but this time about our solar system’s evolution. The mission will collect information about the geology, density and structure of these asteroids.
How will this information help us have a better understanding of the early days of our solar system?
Lucy’s program scientist, Tom Statler, compares this mission to the construction site of the pyramids. He explained to the New York Times that in order to understand “how the pyramids were built, you can go and look at the outsides of them, you can climb all over them. Doing that, however, will answer very little about how they were built. If you can find and excavate the abandoned construction site that’s next to the pyramids, however, and you find the tools used to build them, and you find the leftover blocks — the things that got broken and shaped but didn’t get used — then you start getting insight into a pyramid’s interior and how it got there. That’s what we’re doing with asteroids. We’re excavating the leftovers from the construction site.”
The results of this mission will be used to verify the recent “Nice Model Theory”, which relates to the creation of our solar system. It explains that at the beginning, a star was formed at the center of a rotating disc made of dense gas and dust. Little by little, this gas and dust condensed and became the eight planets in our solar system and Pluto. However, there is one flaw. It is not compatible with Uranus and Neptune’s current orbit. The theory is that originally these two planets were created much closer to the sun. However, the increasingly eccentric orbits of both Jupiter and Saturn destabilized our solar system. This mission should be able to prove or disprove this theory.
Additionally, if they find primordial organic material in the composition of the asteroids, it could explain the origin of Earth’s chemical ingredients which are necessary for life.
The discoveries that will be made by Lucy in the next twelve years may change entirely our view about the universe.