NASA has confirmed that it will build and launch the first-ever spacecraft to explore six of Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids.

Ancient small bodies that share an orbit with Jupiter , it’s thought that the Trojan asteroids could hold clues to understanding the early Solar System—and perhaps even give clues to the the origins of Earth’s organic material.

The mission, called “Lucy,” has just passed NASA’s System Integration Review—albeit a virtual version, thanks to the pandemic—which means the spacecraft can now be built ready for launch next year.

Here’s everything you need to know about NASA’s upcoming “Lucy” mission.

What is ‘Lucy?’

Planning to launch in October 2021, Lucy—which is led by the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI)—will begin a 12-year mission to flyby six Jupiter Trojans, four of which are binary asteroids (two asteroids that orbit each other).

As it does so its instruments will investigate, map and analyze the asteroids in an effort to tease-out their origins—and the formation of the Solar System.

Lucy will also flyby an asteroid in the main Asteroid Belt between Mars and Jupiter.

What are Trojan asteroids?

Remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets, Trojan asteroids share an orbit with Jupiter.

There are two main groups; one ahead of Jupiter in its orbital path, the other behind. They’re held in a Lagrange point stabilized by the Sun in something of a gravitational balancing act.

When will the mission launch and how long will it last?

Lucy will launch in October 2021, but after that it has a 12 -ear journey to reach its first target. Lucy will then have two close Earth flybys to get a gravity-assist push before encountering the Trojan asteroids.

It will visit five in one of the Trojan groups, then in 2025 get another gravity assist from Earth to take it to the other group—via a small Main Belt asteroid—where it will visit one more Trojan asteroid in 2033.

Lucy will then cycle between between the two Trojan clouds every six years.

Why is it called ‘Lucy’?

The mission is named after a 3.2 million-year old fossil skeleton of a human ancestor, called Australopithecus Afarensis—and nicknamed Lucy—which was discovered in 1974 in Hadar, Ethiopia. 

It is thought that Lucy was more closely related than any other fossil to the genus Homo (which includes the modern human species Homo sapiens) as a direct ancestor or a close relative of an unknown ancestor.

NASA is hoping that its space mission will be similarly revolutionary in extending our understanding of the Solar System’s origins.

The asteroid that the NASA’s spacecraft will visit in the Asteroid Belt has been named (52246) Donaldjohanson for Donald Johanson, the discoverer of the Lucy fossil.

Who is building ‘Lucy?’

The spacecraft’s construction will begin later this month at the Lockheed Martin Space Systems facilities in Littleton, Colorado. It will then be tested in preparation for launch.

Goddard Spaceflight Center, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory and Arizona State University have developed a Lucy’s cameras and mapping instruments, which Lockheed Martin will integrate into Lucy between now and February.

“It has been hard not being able to get together as a team and not being able to travel to see the instruments being built and tested,” said Deputy Principal Investigator Dr. Cathy Olkin, also of SwRI. “Still, the team really has surpassed themselves, keeping everyone safe while still carrying out the crucial operations needed to get the mission past this major milestone.”

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.