Nasa has launched a first-of-its kind asteroid mission this weekend to study two large clusters of space rocks around Jupiter, which scientists believe are remnants of primordial material that formed the solar system’s outer planets.
The mission, named Lucy, is set to explore a record-breaking number of asteroids over the next 12 years after launching from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida on Saturday morning.
The spacecraft is due to fly by one asteroid in the solar system’s main belt in April 2025 before flying by seven of Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, starting in August 2027.
Its path will circle back to Earth three times for gravity assists, making it the first spacecraft ever to return to our planet’s vicinity from the outer solar system.
The Trojan asteroids, which take their name from characters in Greek mythology, circle the Sun in two swarms, with one group travelling ahead of Jupiter in its path and the other trailing behind it.
Scientists hope that studying these asteroids up close will help reveal more about how our solar system’s planets formed 4.5 billion years ago and why they ended up in their current configuration.
“The Trojan asteroids are leftovers from the early days of our solar system, effectively the fossils of planet formation,” principal mission investigator Harold Levison, from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, told Nasa.
The US space agency has also said that no other single mission has been designed to visit as many different objects independently orbiting the sun in the history of space exploration.
Lucy, which takes its name from a fossilised human ancestor whose skeleton provided unique insight into human evolution, is more than 14m from tip to tip in size – most of which is huge solar panels used to power the spacecraft.
All of its instruments and a two-metre-high gain antenna needed to communicate with Earth will be located on the much smaller spacecraft body.
The Lucy fossil, which was unearthed in Ethiopia in 1974, was in turn named after the Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds” – which was played repeatedly in the excavation team’s expedition camp.
Additional reporting by agencies