NASA has a brand new mission, and it has some zany names attached to it. And even though they are taken from a popular children’s series, the mission isn’t really aimed at kids. Instead, it is aimed at sophisticated space enthusiasts. The name, named after a 19th century African-American scientist, Lucy, is the key to the concept of the mission, which aims to demonstrate just how “sophisticated” the space industry has become.
The mission is called the Lucy spacecraft, and while the name’s effectiveness as a tongue-twister has been thoroughly proven in the future, NASA wanted to find an asteroid to orbit first. A sizeable space rock — 10–30 meters wide — was chosen because it is the “least accessible near-Earth object,” which is the biggest category of asteroid (it is actually called an asteroid, but they are just called “asteroids” for the purposes of this blog), said Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory Planetary Defense Officer Ken Harrelson. So, NASA decided to pick an asteroid.
The mission will take place over the next several years, but NASA won’t be able to explore the big asteroid on its own. In order to do that, it’s planning on flying a spacecraft named Roxxon to test out various techniques to deflect asteroids. In the process, NASA will also send a mission manager along to collect data from a few dozen small asteroids.
“It’s an ambitious plan,” said Harrelson. “For the first time in space, we are flying a spacecraft that could collect data from several hundred asteroids.”
The first plan, called Endeavour, was dubbed with the somewhat mystical name because of the mystical nature of the targeted asteroids. One that was named Epsilon Epsilon — which some detractors say is really just called Apophis because of how much the moniker resembles the Greek goddess of the two-faced sun god, Equinox — is actually the largest asteroid. It is currently sitting 300 to 400 million miles from Earth, and is not something humans have made any effort to reach since our first footsteps on the moon. The surface of the asteroid is 14 kilometers across. The object has a curved orbit, and when it passed by the Earth, the trans-Mars gravitational effects caused it to curve its orbit to look like an inverted F.
The second mission, named Damascus, is designed to study a smaller space rock (3–5 meters across), which was named for the biblical city in Israel. The crater on the asteroid was named after one of the founders of the United States, Thomas Jefferson.
At the beginning of the project, NASA wanted to learn more about the history of hitting these asteroids — there have been more than 1,000 impacts, mostly from human-made objects. Earlier this year, on June 25, a meteor exploded above Chelyabinsk, Russia, with the force of up to six tons of TNT. It injured more than 1,000 people, shattering windows, damaging buildings and causing widespread panic.
There is also concern about the possibility of another asteroid hitting Earth, due to the higher speed at which space rocks travel through space.
“It’s safe to say that a lot of our previous plans, as well as the technology we have now, will not be adequate in the coming decades,” Harrelson said. “Anything could happen, and I think it’s important that we try to study anything we can.”