‘Lucy in the sky with diamonds’: Nasa's spacecraft on 12-year cruise to Trojan asteroids near Jupiter
In what comes as some exciting news for asteroid aficionados, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) is set to launch a spacecraft named ‘Lucy’ today on a 12-year cruise to swarms of Trojan asteroids near Jupiter – unexplored time capsules from the dawn of the solar system, that are thought to be remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets. Nasa is targeting the predawn hours of Saturday for liftoff, reported the Associated Press, adding that there will be diamonds in the sky with Lucy, one of its science instruments, as well as lyrics from other Beatles' songs.
What are Trojan asteroids?
In astronomical lingo, a trojan is a small celestial body (most of these are asteroids) that shares the orbit of a larger one (usually those of planets or of large moons). The Jupiter trojans, commonly called Trojan asteroids or simply ‘Trojans’, are the swarm of asteroids that share the planet Jupiter's orbit around the Sun. By convention, they are each named from Greek mythology after a figure of the Trojan War, hence the name "Trojan".
According to the most recent findings, there are as many as 9,800 Jupiter trojans orbiting around the planet and scientists believe that many more may still be waiting to be discovered.
Why are Jupiter trojans important?
Jupiter trojans are thought to have been captured into their orbits during the early stages of the solar system's formation or slightly later, during the migration of giant planets. Proper analysis of these celestial bodies is likely to reveal hitherto unknown facts about the origin and evolution of the solar system and even the universe.
According to Nasa, these Trojan asteroids are “time capsules” from the birth of our solar system more than four billion years ago. “These primitive bodies hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system,” wrote the space agency in its brief of Lucy's mission statement.
Lucy: First mission to the Trojan asteroids
Lucy will be the first space mission to study the Jupiter trojans. The mission takes its name from the fossilised human ancestor (called “Lucy” by her discoverers) whose skeleton provided unique insight into humanity's evolution. Likewise, the Lucy mission will expectedly revolutionise our knowledge of planetary origins and the formation of the solar system.
The Lucy spacecraft, launched by Nasa, will be on a 12-year journey to eight different asteroids. These consist of, according to Nasa, a ‘main belt’ asteroid and seven trojans, four of which are members of “two-for-the-price-of-one” binary systems (a phrase used to refer to celestial bodies in a pair that orbit around a common center of gravity e.g. Pluto and its satellite, Charon). “Lucy’s complex path will take it to both clusters of Trojans and give us our first close-up view of all three major types of bodies in the swarms (so-called C-, P- and D-types),” Nasa explained.
Lucy's mission is immensely significant not only for the potential it holds to unlocking an unknown repository of knowledge about the solar system but also for the sheer fact that no other space mission in history has been launched to as many different destinations in independent orbits around our sun. “Lucy will show us, for the first time, the diversity of the primordial bodies that built the planets,” said Nasa.