NASA's Lucy, an asteroid hunter, soars into the sky with diamonds

NASA's Lucy spacecraft launched into the air Saturday morning with diamonds as part of a 12-year mission to discover eight asteroids.

NASA's Lucy, an asteroid hunter, soars into the sky with diamonds

Seven of the mysterious space rock are part of the swarms that orbit Jupiter, believed to be leftovers from planetary formation.

The Atlas V rocket launched before dawn and sent Lucy on a journey that covered nearly 4 billion miles (6.3 million kilometers). The launch was a moment of joy for researchers. Hal Levison, the lead scientist, described it as being like watching a child's birth. He exhorted, "Go Lucy!"

Lucy was named after the 3.2million-year-old bones of an Ethiopian human ancestor nearly 50 years ago. NASA was inspired by the 1967 Beatles song, "Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds", and sent the spacecraft to orbit with NASA's lyrics and other luminaries' wisdom on a plaque. For one of its science instruments, the spacecraft carried a disc of lab-grown diamonds.

Ringo Starr, the Beatles drummer, paid tribute to John Lennon in a NASA prerecorded video. He is credited with writing the song that inspired it all.

"I'm so happy -- Lucy is going back to the sky with diamonds. Starr stated that Johnny would love it. "However, Lucy, if you ever meet someone up there, please give them my love and peace."

Donald Johanson (paleoanthropologist) was goosebumps watching Lucy fly -- "I will never again look at Jupiter the way I did when I saw it." He also said that he was amazed by the "intersection of our past and our present."

Johanson of Arizona State University said, "It is extremely exciting that a human ancestor lived so long ago and stimulated a mission that promises to add valuable data about the formation of our Solar System is valuable information." He was on his first rocket launch from Cape Canaveral.

Lucy's $981million mission to Jupiter's Trojan entourage is the first to target the space giant. This group includes thousands, if not millions, of asteroids. While some of the Trojan asteroids are ahead of Jupiter's orbit, others are behind it.

The Trojans orbit far away from Earth and are scattered far apart from one another, despite their proximity. According to Levison, Southwest Research Institute's principal scientist, there is virtually no chance that Lucy will be clogged by one while it passes past its targets.

Lucy will pass Earth next October, and again in 2024. This will give Lucy enough gravitational power to reach Jupiter's orbit. The spacecraft will pass Donaldjohanson, an asteroid between Mars and Jupiter, on its way to Jupiter. This rock, appropriately named, will be used as a warm-up act in 2025 for the science instruments.

Lucy will use power from two large circular solar wings to chase down five asteroids that are leading Trojans in the 2020s. The spacecraft will then return to Earth for another gravity assistance in 2030. This will send Lucy back to the Trojan cluster trailing Lucy, where it will pass the last two targets in 2033. Lucy will then zip past those final targets for a record eight asteroids seen in one mission.

It's a long, complicated path that left Thomas Zurbuchen (NASA's science mission chief) shaking his head. "You have to be kidding. He recalled asking.

Lucy will travel within 600 miles (965 km) of each target. The largest one is approximately 70 miles (113 km).

"Are there any mountains?" Are there valleys? Pits? Mesas? We don't know. "I'm sure that we'll be surprised," Hal Weaver from Johns Hopkins University, who is in charge of Lucy’s black-and white camera, said. "But we cannot wait to see what... images will reveal about fossils formed from the formation the solar system."

NASA will launch another mission next month in an effort to determine if humans can alter the orbit of an asteroid -- practice in case Earth encounters a deadly rock.

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