Lucy, NASA’s newest spacecraft, explored a strange pond on the dwarf planet Ceres, and now it’s headed back to Earth

Astrobiologists who study the water on Earth are curious about the atmosphere and other environments on other worlds, which could play host to life. On the beautiful dwarf planet Ceres, considered by some to…

Lucy, NASA’s newest spacecraft, explored a strange pond on the dwarf planet Ceres, and now it’s headed back to Earth

Astrobiologists who study the water on Earth are curious about the atmosphere and other environments on other worlds, which could play host to life.

On the beautiful dwarf planet Ceres, considered by some to be the most Earth-like world in the solar system, scientists are currently studying a pond containing sulfur and cyanobacteria.

The most exciting space discoveries, however, are coming from the probe, Lucy, now in orbit around the dwarf planet.

This latest capture marks the first time that NASA has launched an instrument capable of detecting life, but not before a few other inadvertent trips.

Lucy is part of NASA’s largest planetary probe, the OSIRIS-REx mission, named after the “rebel hero” of ancient Greek mythology who was hitched to an asteroid as part of a voyaging vessel. The mission to study asteroids, first proposed in the 1960s, hopes to find small ones that could be empty gasboxes and empty reservoirs of ice. (Asteroids of this kind would be especially exciting for life-hunters, since they have yet to be sampled by past missions and could have a different composition than larger, Earth-like ones.)

Lucy is also a first for science, as it is the first space instrument that has autonomous image-taking capabilities. Previous rovers, for example, had to wait for commands from NASA engineers, or are sometimes too limited in their capabilities to move around for a long period of time. The independent autonomous segment of Lucy should enable researchers to take pictures at very low orbits, since these celestial bodies are typically in orbits that reach far into space. The craft could also capture images during times of low sunlight on the spacecraft, which means it could take advantage of powerful imagers on the surface for astrophotography or for high-resolution targeting.

Lucy launched from California, headed to an orbit on the heel side of a small asteroid called Trykhan and slipped into orbit, according to the NASA website. But the spacecraft itself did not exactly follow the traditional launch path.

The probe hitched a ride on a small rocket launched from Japan, which remained on Earth for a few hours. A series of maneuvers meant that Lucy was out of contact with its ground team. The spacecraft should have re-established contact within a day, but there was not enough time for the ground team to launch another spacecraft — called the Nanoracks — to take Lucy on the return trip to Earth.

Lucy then flew hundreds of thousands of miles past New Zealand and the United States on its way back to California. Although scientists on Earth were worried about losing communication with the craft, Lucy reached its destination and was tracking its trajectory as it descended to a near-Earth orbit.

Some of the original aerospace engineers involved in developing Lucy are working on the Nanoracks, which are prepared to load Lucy with data and send it back to Earth as it makes the long voyage. These satellite-like pods will then dock with Lucy and begin monitoring the craft and collecting science data from the depths of space.

Tomorrow, Aug. 15, 2017, Lucy will re-enter Earth’s atmosphere and slam into the planet’s surface, with cameras trained on the crash to capture imagery and data to determine how it landed.

Next week, scientists and Lucy’s designers will welcome press to an event at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California to discuss the spacecraft’s journey. We will also have a special follow-up article when Lucy arrives at its destination and begins its mission of discovery.

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