ULA will launch NASA's Lucy spacecraft 'in the sky with diamonds' to study asteroids

Lucy named for earliest human ancestor, which was named for Beatles song

A rendering of the Lucy spacecraft and Jupiter's Trojan asteroids. The mission is slated to launch from Cape Canaveral in 2021. (Image credit: NASA)
A rendering of the Lucy spacecraft and Jupiter's Trojan asteroids. The mission is slated to launch from Cape Canaveral in 2021. (Image credit: NASA)

CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA’s Lucy spacecraft -- named for humans' earliest known ancestor, and designed to study Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids -- will launch from Cape Canaveral in 2021 on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V.

ULA officials announced Thursday the Atlas V was selected by NASA to launch the Lucy spacecraft, named for the skeleton of “Lucy,” which provided critical information about human evolution.

ULA was awarded the launch contract in a competitive contract bid for the NASA mission. NASA’s Launch Services Program will oversee the launch contract.

University of Central Florida professor of physics Daniel Britt, who specializes in mineralogy of asteroids, is among the members serving on the Lucy's science team.

Lucy is currently scheduled to lift off sometime in October 2021 from Space Launch Complex 41 at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station. Lockheed Martin in Denver will build the spacecraft.

The mission will study the asteroids orbiting in tandem with Jupiter that are likely a time capsule from the birth of our solar system more than 4.5 billion years ago.

Why Lucy isn't an acronym

Unlike the complicated acronyms used to name most planetary science spacecraft, scientists chose the name Lucy for this mission because the Trojan asteroids are considered fossils of our solar system and hold crucial information about where we came from – just like Lucy’s skeleton.

Anthropologist Donald Johanson discovered Lucy’s bones on a dig in Ethiopia in 1974. After the exciting discovery, the expedition crew was celebrating that night and listening to The Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds.” The team decided to name the remains Lucy.

According to the Arizona State University Institute of Human Origins, Lucy's skeleton was dated to be just less than 3.18 million years old.

Johanson told NASA when he learned that the spacecraft would be named after Lucy, he was “thrilled and overwhelmed with pride.”

The $148.3 billion journey will take 12 years to complete flybys of six different Trojan asteroids and one Main Belt asteroid, according to NASA.

Trojans fly in several clusters and likely feature dark carbon compounds, and are rich in water.

NASA selected Lucy and another robotic asteroid mission, Psyche, in 2017 as part of the Discovery Program. Psyche will study a small metallic asteroid by the same name and is set to lift off in 2023.

The last discovery mission, the Dawn spacecraft to asteroids Ceres and Vesta, ended in November.

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