NASA Selects SwRI to Help Unlock Secrets of Solar System

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Southwest Research Institute is leading NASA’s Lucy mission, which will launch in 2021 for the first reconnaissance of the Trojans, a population of primitive asteroids orbiting in tandem with Jupiter. In this artist’s concept (not to scale), the Lucy spacecraft is flying by Eurybates, one of the six diverse and scientifically important Trojans to be studied.

Courtesy / Southwest Research Institute

NASA’s Lucy mission will launch in 2021 for the first reconnaissance of Jupiter's Trojans.


NASA has selected San Antonio’s Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) to lead the Lucy mission that will explore Jupiter’s Trojans, which could contain clues about the beginnings of our solar system.

Trojans are basically “leftover” primordial material from the processes that formed the outer planets, said Harold Levison, program director and chief scientist in SwRI’s Boulder, Colo., office and the principal investigator of the mission. “These are old fossils of what the solar system looked like at that time … we’ve never really been to objects like that before.”

The spacecraft will be built by Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver and Lucy will launch in October 2021 from Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral, Fla. Staff at SwRI’s headquarters in San Antonio will be working with Levison’s team to construct the color camera and infrared imaging hardware components that will take the 400 million mile journey with Lucy.

So-called Jovian Trojans are part asteroid, part “primitive world” that orbit the sun in swarms on either side of Jupiter. The spacecraft will study six different Trojans and one main belt asteroid between 2025 and 2033.

A NASA video (see below) explains that scientists are not entirely sure what these Trojans really are. They could be asteroids, comets, or even Kuiper Belt objects captured by Jupiter’s and the sun’s gravity.

“The Lucy mission is one of those rare moments where a single mission can have a major impact on our understanding of such fundamental questions,” stated Keith Noll, chief of NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center‘s Planetary Systems Laboratory and a project scientist for the mission, in a SwRI news release.

This illustration shows the trajectory of NASA’s Lucy mission, which is led by Southwest Research Institute. The Lucy spacecraft will launch in 2021 and initially fly by the main belt asteroid DonaldJohanson, named for the paleoanthropologist who discovered the Lucy fossil. Lucy will then go on to study six diverse and scientifically important Trojans – Eurybates, Polymele, Leucus, Orus, and the binary Trojans Patroclus and Menoetius – from August 2027 to March 2033.

Courtesy / Southwest Research Institute

This illustration shows the trajectory of NASA’s Lucy mission.

Because the asteroid population is uniquely diverse, Levison said, Lucy will need to fly by six to obtain a good sample that can “detangle” their histories. Fuel limitations will prevent any landings so the spacecraft will be equipped with a host of remote-sensing instruments to study each type of Trojan at close range to determine their composition, physical properties, masses, densities, and geology.

Lucy is the 13th mission part of NASA’s Discovery Program, which is designed to be relatively low-cost. Levison estimates that Lucy will cost about $750 million, pending contract negotiations, over the lifetime of the mission – well worth it, he said, when you are searching for answers to “big picture questions like where we came from.”

The materials, order, and organics that went into the formation of Trojans, he added, ultimately led to us, to human existence.

The 14th NASA Discovery mission, Psyche, will launch in 2023 and orbit a large metallic asteroid. 16 Psyche is thought to be the largest in the main asteroid belt and may be composed of iron and nickel, similar to the Earth’s core.

“This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world – not one of rock or ice, but of metal,” stated Psyche Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe, Ariz., in a NASA news release. “16 Psyche is the only known object of its kind in the solar system, and this is the only way humans will ever visit a core. We learn about inner space by visiting outer space.”

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