CAPE CANAVERAL (AP) -- A series of NASA spacecraft are set to launch to explore and smash some of the most attractive space rocks in the solar system.
The robot trailblazer Lucy will be the first to go, taking a 12-year cruise to asteroids near Jupiter. These are unexplored time capsules that date back to the dawn of our solar system. Yes, Lucy will have diamonds in the sky, thanks to one of its science instruments. Also, lyrics from other Beatles songs will be available.
NASA targets Saturday morning for liftoff.
A month later, Dart, an impactor spacecraft, will chase a double-asteroid close to home. Dart will ramming the moonlet of the main asteroid to alter its orbit. This test could save Earth from an approaching rock.
A spacecraft will launch next summer to a rare metal planet -- a nickel and iron asteroid, which might contain the exposed core of an once-upon a time planet. Two smaller companion craft, about the size of suitcases, will be released to another set double asteroids.
In 2023, NASA's first samples from an asteroid will be collected by Osiris-Rex, the excavating robot that NASA built last year. A space capsule will then parachute into Utah desert. These samples come from Bennu, which is a rock composed of boulders and rubble that could pose a threat to Earth in a few centuries.
"Each of those asteroids that we're visiting tells us our story...the story of us, and the story about the solar system," stated Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA's chief science mission officer.
Nothing is better than this for understanding how the solar system formed some 4.6 billion years ago. Lucy's principal scientist, Hal Levison, of Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colorado, stated that it's impossible to find anything else. They are the fossils of planet formation.
China and Russia have joined forces to launch an asteroid mission in the latter part of this decade. In the future, the United Arab Emirates will also be planning an asteroid stop.
This flurry is due to technological and design advances, as well the growing interest in asteroids. Zurbuchen stated that all it takes to see the moon and the impactcraters made by meteorites and asteroids to understand the danger.
The dramatic exercise in planet defense promises the asteroid-smacking Dart spacecraft, which will launch Nov. 24, The high-speed collision will take place next fall at 7 million miles (11,000,000 kilometers) distance, and within full view of ground telescopes.
Lucy hopes to get past seven Trojan asteroids, which are a trailing Jupiter on its giant gas planet's journey around the sun. These dark reddish-gray rocks were detected in thousands, and there are likely many more hidden within the two clusters. The Trojans, which were trapped in place by Jupiter's gravitational force and the sun's light, are thought to be cosmic leftovers from the time when the outer planets formed.
"That's why the Trojans are special. Levison stated that if these ideas are correct, they formed throughout our outer solar system. Now we can study them in one location."
Lucy will pass by a smaller, less common object in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter before she encounters the Trojans. Scientists view this 2025 flyby as a rehearsal.
To reach the Trojan swarms of Jupiter and Lucy by 2033, Lucy will need to fly three times around Earth as gravity slingshots.
The spacecraft will be so far away from the sun (approximately 530 million miles or 850 million kilometers), that large solar panels will be required to generate enough power. Each of Lucy's twin circular wings measures 24 feet (7 m) in length, dwarfing the spacecraft that is tucked in its middle like a moth.
Lucy plans to travel within 600 miles (965 km) of each targeted asteroids.
Zurbuchen stated that "every one of those flybys must be near-perfection."
The size of the seven Trojans can vary from an asteroid measuring 40 miles (64 kilometers) and its half-mile (1 km) moonlet to a larger specimen measuring 62 miles (100km). This is the beauty of studying rocks named after heroes from Greek mythology's Trojan War, and more recently, Olympic athletes. Levison stated that any differences between them will have occurred during formation. This gives clues about their origins.
Lucy is an acronym, unlike many NASA missions like the Dart (short for Double Asteroid Redirection Test), which is coming soon. Named after the fossilized remains found in Ethiopia in 1974 by an early human ancestor, the spacecraft was named for the female of 3.2 million years. The 1967 Beatles song "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds" is the inspiration for the name.
"The Lucy fossil really changed our understanding about human evolution and that's why we want to transform our understanding of the solar system evolution by looking all these different objects," stated Cathy Olkin of Southwest Research Institute, who was the deputy principal scientist for the proposal of the name of the spacecraft.
It actually contains a disc of lab-grown diamond weighing 6.7 carats.
Another connection to the Fab Four is that a plaque on the spacecraft has lines from songs they wrote and quotes from other luminaries. A John Lennon song: We all shine on. . . Like the moon, the stars, and the sun.