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NASA to launch Lucy, Psyche asteroid missions to garner insights into early Solar System

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NASA has picked two asteroid missions – Lucy and Psyche – to garner insights into the conditions prevalent in early Solar System and revealed their possible launch dates as well.

Lucy, the first ever reconnaissance of the Jupiter Trojan asteroids, will be launching in October 2021 NASA has said. The Trojans are believed to hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the Solar System. According to NASA, due to an unusual and fortuitous orbital configuration, Lucy, which has been selected for further development as part of NASA’s Discovery Program, will perform an exhaustive landmark investigation that visits six of these primitive asteroids. It will use a suite of high-heritage remote sensing instruments to map the geology, surface color and composition, thermal and other physical properties of its targets at close range – all this within constraints of the Discovery Program.

After its launch in October 2021, Lucy, which will be a robotic spacecraft, will arrive at its first destination, a main belt asteroid, in 2025. Two years after that i.e from 2027 right through to 2033, Lucy will explore six Jupiter Trojan asteroids, which are trapped by Jupiter’s gravity in two swarms that share the planet’s orbit, one leading and one trailing Jupiter in its 12-year circuit around the sun.

Lucy’s primary science objectives include measurement of surface composition, surface geology, interior and bulk properties, and satellite and ring search. Astronomers believe that these Trojans aren’t just asteroids, but are likely relics of a much earlier era in the history of the solar system, may have formed far beyond Jupiter’s current orbit, and could be remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets. Astronomers believe that these Trojans could not only help unravel secrets of the outer planets, but also help in understanding history of the solar system.

Psyche will be studying a unique metal asteroid that’s never been visited before. The robotic mission will be launched two years after Lucy i.e. October of 2023 and will arrive at the asteroid in 2030. After its launch the spacecraft will carry out a Earth gravity assist spacecraft maneuver in 2024 and perform a Mars flyby in 2025.

What gives 16 Psyche great scientific interest is that it is made of metal. It appears to be the exposed nickel-iron core of a protoplanet, one of the building blocks of the Sun’s planetary system. At 16 Psyche scientists will explore, for the first time ever, a world made not of rock or ice, but of metal. The asteroid is most likely a survivor of violent hit-and-run collisions, common when the solar system was forming. Thus 16 Psyche may be able to tell us how Earth’s core and the cores of the other terrestrial planets came to be.

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