NASA's Lucy mission is ready to start its 12-year journey to study Jupiter's Trojan asteroids for the first time. Launching Saturday, the record-breaking exploration will visit eight different asteroids – one in the main asteroid belt and seven Trojans, the most number of destinations with different orbits around the Sun in one mission ever.
The Trojans are space rocks that follow and precede Jupiter in its orbit. Four of these trojans are members of “two for the price of one” binary systems, making their exploration much more convenient. These asteroids are thought to have experienced fewer collisions with other asteroids than those in the inner Solar System or main asteroid belt, which means they could provide insight into the early Solar System and possibly even the pieces from which the planets formed.
“With Lucy, we’re going to eight never-before-seen asteroids in 12 years with a single spacecraft,” Tom Statler, Lucy project scientist at NASA Headquarters, said in a statement. “This is a fantastic opportunity for discovery as we probe into our Solar System’s distant past.”
The mission is named after the Australopithecus afarensis fossil remains informally know as "Lucy". Lucy changed the way we thought about early hominins, revealing they could walk upright earlier than thought, and is considered an ancestor to all modern hominins, including humans. The Trojan asteroids are also “fossilized remains” from the original planetary building blocks of the Solar System.
Scientists expect to find incredible new insights into the formative years of our little corner of the universe as the mission proceeds. There are competing theories about how the Trojans came to have their current orbits. If Lucy can resolve this question, it could tell us a lot about other aspects of the Solar System's formation, including the journeys the giant planets went on to reach their current locations.
The first asteroid Lucy will encounter will be 52246 Donaldjohanson (named after the discoverer of Lucy) in the main asteroid belt in April 2025.
The mission launch window opens at 5:34 am EDT Saturday, October 16. The spacecraft will launch on a United Launch Alliance (ULA) Atlas V 401 rocket from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral in Florida. You can watch the launch live on the NASA website or via the livestream below: