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Tracking the Trojans with NASA’s New Super-Sleuth, Lucy
What delivers more rapid-fire imagery and data collation than an online casino? A 1.5 tonne spacecraft involved in NASA’s latest mission in the Discovery series. This time around, a little lady called Lucy is the lead in, what could be, an origins story of our solar system!
The Mission – Deep Dive into Jupiter’s Asteroid Swarms
Lucy, the hominid fossil, may be a critical missing link in the human evolutionary chain – but in her new role, she is the super sleuth of the universe. Her mission is to enter Jupiter’s orbit and deep dive into the swarms of asteroids that lead and trail the great gas planet in its infinite progression around the sun.
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Eight Asteroids, 12 Years and More Than Six Billion Kilometres
The craft’s sole purpose is to study these pieces of floating debris in an effort to determine their individual structure, composition, temperature and surface features. NASA, in their infinite wisdom, has selected eight asteroids – called trojans – for Lucy to scrutinise.
To Avoid Cosmic Collisions a Precise Flight Pattern is Required
Five of the trojans are located in the leading swarm, two in the trailing swarm, and one is a main belt asteroid sandwiched in an orbit between Jupiter and Mars. As there are literally millions of trojans in what is essentially one small section of space, calculating the probe’s precise flight pattern is a mind-bending feat unto itself.
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Are Asteroids the Clue to the Evolution of the Solar System?
Why is NASA so interested in space detritus that is floating around the cosmos approximately 600 million kilometres from Earth? It could be the biggest clue as to precisely how our Solar System evolved. In fact, the prevailing theory of the day is that asteroids are the remnants of material left over from the formation of the planets.
It Is All About the Origins Stories
By studying the trojans, scientists can determine their origin. If they are composed of similar materials to Jupiter’s moons, the odds are they were formed equidistant from the Sun as their host planet. If not, they could be from a region of the Solar System far beyond Neptune, an enigmatic area of the cosmos known as the Kuiper Belt.
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Trojans Trapped by the Gravitational Tug
Where do trojans come from? Scientists suspect trojan asteroids were, in fact, widely scattered across deep space early in the Solar System’s evolution. As they ventured closer to Jupiter, they became trapped by its gravitational pull and have been effectively ensnared for more than four billion years!
A Successful Mission Depends on Multiple Earth Gravity Assists
What is extraordinary is during Lucy’s 12-year mission, the probe has to fly-by Earth every now and again and use its gravity to create a sling-shot effect into the asteroid swarms. It is a manoeuvre known as a gravity assist – and one that boggles the mind of mere mortals, such as ourselves!
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What Does Lucy Look Like?
In reality, Lucy is a 4-metre-tall space craft. She has foldable wings and a high gain antenna capable of sending and receiving data hundreds of millions of kilometres to and from Earth.
Despite a relatively small main body, when her wings are fully extended, Lucy measures a little over 14 metres in length – the equivalent of the height of a five-floor apartment block!
Powering Up for an Orbit Far Away from the Sun
Although Lucy is designed to travel at a speed of 108,000 kilometres per hour, the wings are not built to maximise flight. Rather, they are to ensure the probe has sufficient solar power to orbit a whopping 853 million kilometres from the Sun… and keep going for more than a decade!
Lucy’s Average Power Output on Earth… and in Deep Space
Down here on Earth, the power output of the solar arrays is around 18,000 watts. That is sufficient electricity to keep the lights burning in a few medium-sized homes.
Along the probe’s cosmic highway, however, sunlight is at a premium. As a result, output plummets to an average of 500 watts… about the same amount of power required to operate a washing machine or multiple gaming sessions at an online casino, such as our very own Springbok Casino ZA!
What Is in the Lucy Probe’s Toolkit?
As far as equipment goes, the probe’s toolkit is camera-heavy, with a few spectrometers on the side. Here’s a sneak peek at the instruments Lucy has stashed away in her ‘boot’:
- L’LORRI or the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager – a panchromatic camera with the highest spatial resolution in the bag. Its job is to snap black and white images of the asteroids’ surfaces to provide a detailed view of the materials and features.
- L’TES or the Lucy Thermal Emission Spectrometer. This piece of sensitive gear is designed to measure surface temperature by studying the thermal infrared spectrum.
- L’Ralph consists of an infrared imaging spectrometer, called LEISA, which can identify the different ices, organics and silicates on the respective surfaces. It also hosts MVIC, a high-powered camera capable of taking colour pics of the surfaces to help identify the composition.
- T2 CAM – a thermal tracking camera tasked with tracking the asteroids during close encounters with our cosmic superstar, Lucy!
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