NASA adds another asteroid target for the trojan explorer Lucy mission

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NASA has added a new asteroid target for its Lucy mission as the spacecraft continues on its 12-year-long journey.

NASA announced that it is adding a new target for the Lucy mission as the spacecraft goes on its more than 6-billion-kilometre-long journey to study the Jupiter trojan asteroids. The new target is a small main-belt asteroid and Lucy will get an up-close view of it on November 1, 2023, to conduct an engineering test of the spacecraft’s asteroid-tracking navigation system.

The asteroid, labelled (152830) 1999 VD57 was not a target earlier because it is extremely small. At just around 700 metres in size, 1999 VD57 will be the smallest main belt asteroid ever visited by a spacecraft, according to NASA. The asteroid is closer in size to the asteroids visited by the DART mission and the OSIRIS-REx mission than the previously visited main belt asteroids.“There are millions of asteroids in the main asteroid belt. I selected 500,000 asteroids with well-defined orbits to see if Lucy might be traveling close enough to get a good look at any of them, even from a distance. This asteroid really stood out. Lucy’s trajectory as originally designed will take it within 40,000 miles of the asteroid, at least three times closer than the next closest asteroid,” said Raphael Marschall, the Lucy collaborator who identified the asteroid as a target, in a press statement.After this, the Lucy team realised the spacecraft could get an even closer look at the asteroid if they added a small manoeuvre. Later, they added 1999 VD57 to Lucy’s itinerary as an engineering test of its terminal tracking system. The system helps the spacecraft determine exactly how far it is from an asteroid and exactly which way the cameras should be pointed as it makes a close approach. According to NASA, this has been a long-standing problem for such flyby missions.According to the mission’s principal investigator Hal Levison, most flyby missions in the past have accounted for this uncertainty by taking a lot of images of the region where the asteroid might be. This results in a lot of images of blank space and, therefore, lower efficiency. But, Lucy will be the first flyby mission that will employ a new complex system that can automatically track asteroids during encounters. The use of this system should allow Lucy to take many more pictures of its targets.Lucy is the first mission to study the Trojan asteroids, which orbit the Sun at the same distance as Jupiter. The Trojan asteroids are described as an “ancient population of asteroid fossils” because they are believed to have been created by the same materials that formed the planets when the solar system was formed nearly four billion years ago. In October last year, Lucy conducted a “slingshot manoeuvre” around the Earth in the first of three Earth gravity assists planned for the mission.

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