CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. – NASA’s Lucy spacecraft launched atop an Atlas V rocket Saturday morning from Cape Canaveral in the agency’s first mission to study Jupiter’s asteroids.
The Lucy spacecraft launched on a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket at 5:34 a.m. from Cape Canaveral Space Force Station. Researchers grew emotional describing the launch — lead scientist Hal Levison said it was like witnessing the birth of a child. “Go Lucy!” he urged.
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ULA officials announced the mission in 2019, saying it will study the Trojan 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.
Over the course of its 12-year journey, the spacecraft will visit eight different asteroids, according to NASA. Seven of the mysterious space rocks are among swarms of asteroids sharing Jupiter’s orbit, thought to be the pristine leftovers of planetary formation.
Despite their orbits, the Trojans are far from the planet and mostly scattered far from each other. So there’s essentially zero chance of Lucy getting clobbered by one as it swoops past its targets, said Levison of Southwest Research Institute, the mission’s principal scientist.
Lucy will swing past Earth next October and again in 2024 to get enough gravitational oomph to make it all the way out to Jupiter’s orbit. On the way there, the spacecraft will zip past asteroid Donaldjohanson between Mars and Jupiter. The aptly named rock will serve as a 2025 warm-up act for the science instruments.
Drawing power from two huge circular solar wings, Lucy will chase down five asteroids in the leading pack of Trojans in the late 2020s. The spacecraft will then zoom back toward Earth for another gravity assist in 2030. That will send Lucy back out to the trailing Trojan cluster, where it will zip past the final two targets in 2033 for a record-setting eight asteroids visited in a single mission.
Lucy is named after the 3.2 million-year-old skeletal remains of a human ancestor found in Ethiopia nearly a half-century ago. That discovery got its name from the 1967 Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” prompting NASA to send the spacecraft soaring with band members’ lyrics and other luminaries’ words of wisdom imprinted on a plaque. The spacecraft also carried a disc made of lab-grown diamonds for one of its science instruments.
In a prerecorded video for NASA, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr paid tribute to his late colleague John Lennon, credited for writing the song that inspired all this.
“I’m so excited — Lucy is going back in the sky with diamonds. Johnny will love that,” Starr said. “Anyway, if you meet anyone up there, Lucy, give them peace and love from me.”