NASA plans to send the Lucy spacecraft on a 12-year mission to examine a group of rocky planets known as the Jupiter Trojan asteroids for the first time, providing new insights into the solar system’s creation.
The Atlas V rocket that would launch the probe from Cape Canaveral was set to launch at 5:34 a.m. local time (9:34 a.m. GMT) on Saturday.
Lucy, named after an ancient pre-human ancestor’s fossil, will be the first solar-powered spacecraft to go so far from the Sun, and will observe eight asteroids, more than any other mission before it.
Lucy will also conduct three Earth flybys for gravity assistance, making it the first spacecraft from beyond the solar system to return to our planet’s proximity.
On a conference call with reporters, Thomas Zurbuchen, assistant administrator of NASA’s Science Mission, said, “Each of those asteroids, each of those pristine samples contributes a part of the tale of the solar system, the story of us.”
Lucy will first collide with asteroid Donaldjohanson in the Main Belt, between Mars and Jupiter, in 2025. The body is named for the Lucy fossil’s discoverer.
It will collide with seven Trojan asteroids between 2027 and 2033, five in the swarm that precedes Jupiter and two in the swarm that follows the gas giant.
The largest of them has a diameter of around 60 miles (95 kilometres).
Lucy will fly within 250 miles (400 kilometres) of its target objects to explore their geology, including composition, mass, density, and volume, using its onboard equipment and big antenna.