A spacecraft has taken off from Cape Canaveral on a mission to find the Solar System’s “fossils.”
The Lucy probe will travel to Jupiter’s orbit to explore two groups of asteroids that orbit the gas giant in swarms ahead of and behind it. Scientists from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) believe the objects are remnants of planet formation.
As a result, these trojans, as they’re known, provide crucial information about the Solar System’s early evolution.
At 05:34 EDT, lift-off on an Atlas-V rocket from the Cape Canaveral Space Force Station in Florida went off without a hitch (09:34 GMT; 10:34 BST). Nasa has pledged $981 million (£720 million) for the expedition over the next 12 years. The Lucy probe will visit seven trojans during this time.
Lucy, a renowned human fossil from Africa, taught us a lot about where our species came from. And the name – and inspiration – for this new Nasa mission comes from that beginning story, only the fossils this spacecraft is looking for are hundreds of millions of kilometres away from Earth, circling the Sun in formation with Jupiter.
Lucy will analyse the city-sized objects with their instruments, describing their shape, structure, surface properties, composition, and temperature.
If the trojans are made of the same components as Jupiter’s moons, this means they formed at the same distance from the Sun as Jupiter. This, however, is not the expectation.
Solar system scientists calculated that if the probe travels to Earth on a regular basis, it can use the sling-shot effect to visit both trojan swarms. Lucy’s first contact with the leading group of trojans would take place in 2027/28, followed by a tour of the trailing cluster in 2033. The total distance travelled exceeds 6 billion kilometres (4 billion miles).