On Saturday, NASA launched the first such mission to study Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, two large clusters of space rocks that scientists believe are remnants of primordial material that formed the outer planets of the solar system.
The space probe, called Luci and packed in a special cargo capsule, was lifted according to the schedule from Cape Canaveral Air Station in Florida at 5:34 AM EDT (0934 GMT), NASA announced. It was carried by an Atlas V rocket from the United Launch Alliance (UAL), a joint venture of Boeing Co. and Lockheed Martin Corp.
Luca’s mission is a 12-year expedition to study a record number of asteroids. It will be the first to explore the Trojans, thousands of stone objects orbiting the Sun in two swarms – one in front of the orbit of the huge gas planet Jupiter and one behind it.
It is believed that the largest known Trojan asteroids, named after the warriors of Greek mythology, have a diameter of as much as 225 kilometers (140 miles).
Scientists hope that Lucia’s close flight of seven Trojans will give new clues about how the planets of the solar system formed some 4.5 billion years ago and what shaped their current configuration.
They are believed to be rich in carbon compounds, asteroids can even provide new insights into the origin of organic materials and life on Earth, NASA said.
“Trojan asteroids are remnants from the first days of our solar system, actually fossils of planet formation,” said NASA, Harold Levison, the mission’s chief researcher at the Southwestern Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.
No other scientific mission is designed to visit so many different objects that independently orbit the Sun in the history of space exploration, NASA said.
In addition to the Trojans, Lucy will also fly an asteroid in the main asteroid belt of the solar system, named Donald Johansson as part of the leading discoverer of the fossilized human ancestor known as Lucy, after whom the NASA mission took its name. The Luci fossil, discovered in Ethiopia in 1974, was named after the Beatles’ hit “Luci in the Ski with Diamonds”.
The asteroid probe Luci will otherwise enter the history of space flights. After a trip that returns to Earth three times for gravity assistance, it will be the first spacecraft to ever return to near Earth from the outer solar system, according to NASA.
The probe will use rocket thrusters to maneuver in space and two rounded solar fields, each the width of a school bus, to charge batteries that will power the instruments contained in the much smaller central part of the spacecraft. (Steve Gorman Report in Los Angeles Edited by Rosalba O’Brien and Frances Kerry)