The Lucy spacecraft set off for its rendezvous with the Trojan asteroids

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NASA’s Lucy spacecraft was launched a few minutes ago (at 12:35 Greek time) from Cape Canaveral in Florida, on a large rocket “Atlas 5” of the United Launch Alliance (ULA). The spacecraft will make a 12-year voyage, during which it will pass close to eight asteroids, most of which will be Trojans.

These are two groups of asteroids named after Homer’s “Iliad”: one before Jupiter and one after him, trapped on the one hand by the strong gravity of the largest planet in our solar system and on the other by the gravity of the Sun. One group of asteroids (focusing on Lagrange L4 in space) is named after Greek heroes of the Trojan War and the other (focusing on Lagrange L5) is named after Trojans.

The nearly $ 1 billion mission will allow scientists to take a close look at these asteroids, which range in color from gray to dark red and are believed to be remnants of space after the formation of Jupiter. of Saturn and other distant outer planets.

It is estimated that these asteroids – numbering more than 7,000 – are far enough away to “put their hand” on meteorites that occasionally fall to Earth. They have never been studied before and may be quite different from the best known and closest asteroids between Mars and Jupiter.

The 15-meter-long Lucy, named after the 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus of the same name, was discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. The spacecraft was assembled at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, has two large solar panels seven meters wide and seven meters wide. four scientific instruments to study the chemical composition, mass, temperature and topography of asteroids, while photographing them. It will make its first asteroid approach in April 2025 – “Donald Johansson” (named after the scientist who discovered the Australopithecus Lucy) in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

In August 2027 it will approach the first Trojan asteroid, the large Eurybat (64 km in diameter) and its four small satellites. Several more close transits to other asteroids in the same “family” will follow, with the latest approach – to the asteroid “Patroclus” and its smaller counterpart – scheduled for March 2033.

It is a complex mission, prepared by NASA for years, which will require extremely precise handling due to its many scheduled “appointments” – more than any other space mission in the past – with potentially dangerous asteroids.

After Lucy, another mission for the asteroids, the DART (Double Asteroid Redirection Test) is expected to be launched on November 24 this year. It will be less of a scientific mission and more of a planetary defense test, aimed at changing the direction of an asteroid that could threaten Earth in the future.

The 600-kilogram DART spacecraft is scheduled to crash in September 2022 at a speed of 6.2 kilometers per second on the small asteroid Dimorfo, which is in orbit around the largest asteroid Gemini. The goal is to slightly slow down the speed of the Dimorphos, by about half a millisecond per second, enough to marginally change its trajectory.

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