It’s been a little more than two years since the Lucy mission was launched on an Atlas V rocket, eventually bound for asteroids that share orbit with Jupiter. After gravitational assistance from Earth in 2022, the spacecraft was heading toward an intermediate target, and is now close to reaching the target.
On Wednesday, the $1 billion mission is scheduled to make its first flyby of the asteroid, coming within 265 miles (425 km) of the Dinkenish asteroid’s small main belt. In a blog postNASA says the encounter will take place at 12:54 PM ET (16:54 UTC).
About an hour before the encounter, the spacecraft will begin trying to attach to the small asteroid, with its instruments directed toward it. This will allow the best possible location to take data from Dinkinesh where Lucy’s speed is 10,000 mph (4,470 meters per second).
During this maneuver, Lucy’s main antenna will be pointed away from Earth, so it will not be in contact with its operators at Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland. After the flyby, Lucy will redirect itself to restore communications with Earth via the Deep Space Network. Images and other data will be sent back to Earth for the next several days.
what’s in a name?
This is an important flight for Lucy for several reasons. First, this is the first real test of the spacecraft tracking system. If this fails, the asteroid will be nothing more than a blur as Lucy passes by.
Symbolically, the asteroid’s flyby of Earth is also significant. The Lucy spacecraft is named after fossil hominin Lucy found in 1974 in Ethiopia. These fossils Australopithecus afarensis The species is crucial to our understanding of human evolution, and has helped scientists determine that our ability to walk on two legs preceded the increase in brain size that is one of the dominant characteristics of modern humans.
NASA’s mission will study the “Trojan” asteroids that share the same orbit as Jupiter. Scientists believe that these asteroids are remnants of the era of planet formation in the solar system, and therefore they are closer to fossils. Hence the name Lucy for this mission.
Dinkenish, which is about a kilometer across at its widest point, was discovered in 1999. It was not named when the Lucy mission targeted it on its first flyby as a test of a tracking system, on its way to the Jovian Trojan asteroids later in the decade. Therefore, the Lucy mission scientists proposed the name Dinkenish, the Ethiopian name for the Lucy fossils.
It was approved earlier this year by the International Astronomical Union.
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