December 8, 2023

NASA’s Lucy mission is on track – a space probe makes a surprising discovery

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The actual target of NASA’s Lucy mission is the Trojan asteroids in Jupiter’s orbit. (Artist’s impression) © dpa/NASA/JPL-Caltech

On its journey through space, NASA’s Lucy probe makes an exciting discovery at its first destination: the asteroid Dinkenish is not alone.

Washington, DC – In October 2021, NASA’s Lucy probe began its mission to the Trojan asteroids near Jupiter. Now she’s reached her first destination on this long expedition and made an unexpected discovery: the Dinkenish asteroid, which Lucy flew by, consists of not just one asteroid, but two.

Dinkenish truly lived up to his name; “This is amazing,” said Hal Levison, the principal scientist for the Lucy mission. He points to Dinkinesh’s translation from Amharic, which means “wonderful.” Until Lucy’s brief visit, Dinkenish was just an obscure speck in astronomers’ telescopes. Since February 2023, it has been one of Lucy’s destinations on her journey to Jupiter’s Troy.

Dinkenish (+ companion)
52246 Donald Johansson
3548 Eurybates and the QUEta satellite
15094 Polymilli and the Xuan satellite
11351 Leukos
21,900 Urus
617 Patroclus and Menoetius

NASA’s Lucy probe is scheduled to pass near eleven celestial bodies

“When Lucy was initially selected for the flight, we planned to fly by seven asteroids. With the addition of Dinkenish and the two Trojan satellites and now this satellite, we have increased the number to eleven. Advertisement from NASA.

A few weeks before Lucy arrived at Dinkenish, the mission team suspected it might be a double asteroid. Lucy’s devices recorded changes in brightness while approaching the asteroid, which indicates this. The first pictures of the meeting in space removed any doubts: Dinkenish is a double asteroid. NASA scientists estimate that the larger asteroid is about 790 meters long at its widest point, while the smaller asteroid is about 220 meters in diameter.

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Asteroid Dinkenish in a photo taken by NASA's Lucy space probe.  Dinkenish consists of two asteroids.
Asteroid Dinkenish in a photo taken by NASA’s Lucy space probe. Dinkenish consists of two asteroids. © NASA/Goddard/SwRI/Johns Hopkins APL/NOAO

Visiting the Dinkenish asteroid was a test for “Lucy”

In addition to the surprising discovery in space, the encounter between “Lucy” and Dinkenish was, above all, a test for the probe: Are all systems working? Could Lucy autonomously track an asteroid it is flying past at 16,000 kilometers per hour using a so-called “terminal tracking system”? Both NASA and Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of the Lucy spacecraft, are very satisfied with the initial results.

“This is an exciting series of images. It shows that the ultimate tracking system is working as planned, even when the universe presented us with a more difficult target than we expected,” said Tom Kennedy of Lockheed Martin. “It is one thing to simulate, test and practice. It’s another thing entirely to see what’s actually going on.

The researchers are excited about Dinkenish’s data

Although the purpose of the visit to Dinkenish was originally just a test, the scientists involved are excited about the data collected. “We knew this would be the smallest main belt asteroid ever seen up close,” says Keith Noll. “The fact that there are two makes it even more exciting.” The NASA employee compares the twin asteroids Didymos and Demorphos, which NASA’s Dart probe visited about a year ago to conduct a test of the planet. defense. “But there are also some interesting differences that we will investigate,” Noll says.

The Lucy space probe has a tight schedule planned for the next few years: In December 2024, it will approach Earth again and use its gravity to gain momentum. It will then fly to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, where Lucy is scheduled to fly by the roughly four-kilometre-sized asteroid 52246 Donald Johansson in April 2025.

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The Lucy space probe will visit the Trojan asteroids near Jupiter

The probe will then head to its main target, which is the Trojan asteroids in the orbit of Jupiter. The first flyby of Troy (3548 Eurybates) is scheduled for August 2027. “Lucy” will not visit its last asteroid until 2033 (unpaid bill)

Automated assistance was used in writing this article by the editorial team. The article was carefully examined by editor Tanya Banner before publication.