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NASA launches mission to probe Jupiter asteroids

October 16, 2021

NASA launched a spacecraft on a 12-year mission to explore Jupiter's Trojan asteroids for the first time. The probe will gather new insights into the formation of the solar system.

The United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with the Lucy spacecraft aboard
Lucy will be the first spacecraft to study Jupiter's Trojan AsteroidsImage: Bill Ingalls/NASA/AP/picture alliance

NASA launched a first-of-its kind mission, called Lucy, to examine a cluster of rocky bodies — known as Jupiter Trojan asteroids — that scientists believe are remnants of the primordial material that formed the solar system's outer planets.

The Atlas V rocket responsible for propelling the probe lifted off on Saturday at 5:34 a.m. local time (11:34 a.m. CET) from Cape Canaveral.

If all goes as scheduled, Lucy will embark on a 12-year expedition and will become the first solar-powered spacecraft to go so far from the sun.

NASA's Lucy spacecraft, atop a United Launch Alliance Atlas 5 rocket for a mission to study the Trojan asteroids in the outer solar system, stands at Pad-41 in preparation for launch at Cape Canaveral Space Force Station
The Atlas V rocket responsible for propelling the probe was set to lift off on SaturdayImage: Steve Nesius/REUTERS

The probe will study eight asteroids in total — more than any mission before it.

"Each one of those asteroids, each one of those pristine samples, provide a part of the story of the solar system, the story of us," Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator of NASA's Science Mission, told the media.

Believed to be rich in carbon compounds, the asteroids may even help deepen the understanding of the origin of organic materials and life on our planet, NASA said.

New insights into solar system's evolution

In 2025, Lucy will do a flyby of an asteroid in the solar system's main asteroid belt, called Donald Johanson in honor of the lead discoverer of a fossil of a pre-human ancestor known as Lucy, from which the NASA probe derives its name.

Juno's epic Jupiter mission

Lucy the fossil, unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974, gave an insight into human evolution.

The space probe's name was chosen with the hope that it will shed light on the solar system's evolution.

The mission will come across seven Trojan asteroids between 2027 and 2033.

In addition, Lucy will make three Earth flybys for gravitational assists, making it the first spacecraft to return to Earth's vicinity from the outer solar system.

dvv/sri (AFP, Reuters)