Monday, October 19, 2015

NASA’s Proposed Lucy Mission to Study the Fossils of Planet Formation

Artist's concept of Lucy mission. Image Credit: Southwest Research Institute

A NASA mission to study five primitive asteroids orbiting near Jupiter, called Trojans, has entered its concept design study phase. The spacecraft, named Lucy after the iconic hominin skeleton, will try to answer essential questions about the origin of our solar system. “The Trojans are objects that formed throughout the outer solar system. Thus, they contain important clues about how the giant planets formed. In addition, the Trojans were likely placed on their current orbits by the migration of the planets, and so they will also tell us about that process as well,” Harold F. Levison, the Principal Investigator for Lucy at the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), told

Lucy mission was awarded by NASA $3 million to conduct concept design studies and analyses. The agency will decide in September 2016 whether or not to continue the development of the Lucy spacecraft. If selected by NASA for further funding under its Discovery Program, the mission would launch in 2021 and arrive in 2027 to visit three asteroids with a final encounter in 2032.

"Dynamic and exciting missions like these hold promise to unravel the mysteries of our solar system and inspire future generations of explorers. It's an incredible time for science, and NASA is leading the way," John Grunsfeld, astronaut and associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate in Washington, said about Lucy and other proposals. 

Lucy will use a suite of high-heritage remote sensing instruments to map the geology, surface color and composition, thermal and other physical properties of the chosen targets at close range. It will map the color, composition and regolith properties of the surface and determine the distribution of minerals, ices and organics species.

“We will determine the density and composition of these important objects. We will also determine the sizes of their craters, which tell us how these objects grew,” Levison revealed.

“We will likely find organics,” he added.

The spacecraft’s payload is expected to include three complementary imaging and mapping instruments, including a color imaging and infrared mapping spectrometer, a high-resolution visible imager, and a thermal infrared spectrometer. Levison hopes that the probe will acquire images with higher resolution than 10 m/px.

Lucy mission trajectory. Image Credit: Southwest Research Institute
Lucy mission trajectory. Image Credit: Southwest Research Institute

Lucy will map albedo, shape, crater spatial and size-frequency distributions, determine the nature of crustal structure and layering, and determine the relative ages of surface units. It will determine the masses and densities, and study subsurface composition via crater windows, fractures, ejecta blankets, and exposed bedding.

Additionally, Lucy will perform radio science investigations using its telecommunications system to determine the masses and densities of the Trojan targets. 

The spacecraft will try to answer important questions about the origin of planets like: what were the initial stages, conditions and processes of solar system formation and how did the giant planets accrete? Lucy will also look for the sources of primordial organic matter.

The potential targets of the mission include the main-belt asteroid 1981 EQ5 and the following Trojans: Eurybates, 1999 VQ10, Patroclus (aka 617 Patroclus I Menoetius – binary Trojan) and 1997 TS25.

Harold F. Levison of SwRi, Colorado is the Principal Investigator with Catherine Olkin, also SwRI as the mission's Deputy Principal Investigator. NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center would manage the project.

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