Lucy in the sky with asteroids

Well done to the data team at The Economist, having to visualise a 12-year journey of a space probe as it makes a flying visit to eight different asteroids. They’ve made a very complicated journey look quite straightforward and elegant.

A probe intended to study the Trojan asteroids takes offThe Economist
Lucy, as this planetary-ancestor-investigating mission is dubbed, after a well-known specimen of Australopithecus, an early hominid, blasted off from Cape Canaveral, in Florida, and will now follow one of the most complex paths around the solar system yet devised by NASA’s orbital navigators. The diagram which shows Lucy’s journey, indicates how the craft will first pick up speed using two velocity-boosting fly-bys of Earth. It will then head for the Greek camp, passing, for a practice run at observation, by way of a convenient main-belt asteroid that the mission’s scientists have named Donaldjohanson, in honour of the discoverer of Lucy the Australopithecine. When it arrives at L4 in 2027, it will encounter five bodies: Eurybates and its tiny satellite Queta, Polymele, Leucus and Orus. Having examined each of these, it will leave the Greek camp in 2028 and cross, via another velocity-boosting fly-by of Earth, to the Trojan camp at L5. Its final planned encounter, when it reaches L5 in 2033, is with Patroclus and Menoetius.

Fortunately, they were able to call on the team at NASA’s Scientific Visualisation Studio for help.

Lucy mission trajectoryNASA Scientific Visualization Studio
Lucy will launch in October 2021 and, with boosts from Earth’s gravity, will complete a twelve-year journey to eight different asteroids — a Main Belt asteroid and seven Jupiter Trojans, the last two members of a “two-for-the-price-of-one” binary system. Lucy’s complex path will take it to both clusters of Trojans and give us our first close-up view of all three major types of bodies in the swarms (so-called C-, P- and D-types).

Author: Terry Madeley

Works with student data and enjoys reading about art, data, education and technology.

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