In 1974 in Ethiopia’s Awash Valley, paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson and his staff uncovered dozens of items of fossilized bone. Collectively, they represented 40% of the skeleton of a feminine Australopithecus afarensis, a 3.2-million-year-old hominin that stood slightly over 3 ft tall.
The skeleton’s official identify is AL 288-1. However on the excavation camp on the evening after her restoration, Johanson performed The Beatles’ “Lucy within the Sky with Diamonds” from his little Sony tape deck. The following morning at breakfast, it was settled: The skeleton can be named Lucy, Scientific American reported in 2014.
Since her discovery 47 years in the past, Lucy (and the early hominin fossils archaeologists subsequently uncovered) has remodeled scientists’ understanding of human evolution. Now, a brand new Lucy goals to light up the historical past of our whole photo voltaic system—and maybe our place in it.
NASA’s Lucy, the first-ever mission to check a set of mysterious asteroids that orbit the solar with Jupiter, will launch tomorrow (Saturday, Oct. 16). The mission is called after the Lucy fossil as a result of the asteroids it would go to “are fossils of planet formation,” Lucy Challenge Supervisor Donna Douglas-Bradshaw mentioned in a NASA interview. These asteroids, referred to as the Trojan asteroids, orbit the solar near Jupiter. They’re “believed to be pristine remnants of our photo voltaic system formation,” Douglas-Bradshaw mentioned.
Cory Prykull, the Lucy meeting, check, and launch operations lead at Lockheed Martin Area, joked that asteroids, that are house rocks manufactured from silicas and metals, can appear “comparatively boring.” However as “planet fossils,” additionally they “maintain every kind of tales of the place they got here from, how they have been fashioned, and what supplies are literally in these completely different parts of the photo voltaic system,” he mentioned in a NASA interview. At about 4 billion years outdated, the Trojan asteroids are a few of the oldest fossils in our photo voltaic neighborhood. And, Prykull defined, they “symbolize the fragments left over from the formation of the outer planets.”
To date, astronomers have solely gazed on the Trojans from afar, utilizing giant telescopes and different remark gear right here on Earth. This gear, although spectacular, yields solely “actually grainy photos” of the asteroids, Prykull mentioned: “We’re extraordinarily excited to go and go to them due to our whole lack of information of precisely what’s on the market.”
With Lucy, astronomers hope to get high-definition photos and “some key insights as to what supplies are in these Trojan asteroids,” Prykull mentioned. Higher understanding what these supplies are may assist researchers parse out what constructing blocks have been accessible through the formation of our photo voltaic system. “What we actually need to discover out,” Prykull mentioned, is what “issues have been accessible to create these outer planets. And that’s simply going to vastly enhance our data and understanding of how our planets have been fashioned and consequently how we as a cosmic and photo voltaic system neighborhood actually got here to be into our personal.”
Lucy’s 12-year mission, which can span a complete of 4 billion miles, will begin with a one-year orbit of Earth. Subsequent comes an Earth-gravity help, a flyby method that can “pump up our power and our trajectory” to the asteroids, Douglas-Bradshaw mentioned. “You may consider Earth as being a slingshot,” she added.
Lucy will first slingshot to the “L4 swarm” of Trojan asteroids, positioned in a area forward of Jupiter’s orbit. Then the spacecraft will head again to Earth, slingshot as soon as once more through one other gravitational help, and head to the remaining set of Trojans.
Prykull, who’s labored the Lucy mission since its first items “hit the manufacturing flooring” is most excited for tomorrow’s launch, he mentioned, “and [when] our spacecraft has absolutely deployed photo voltaic arrays and it’s nominally wholesome, out in house, prepared to begin its journey.”
Inquisitive about Lucy mission updates? Try NASA’s Lucy Mission Sources web page and comply with its social media accounts at @NASA.