Lucy Mission: The First Mission to Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids!
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Many of us might have heard about asteroids from the news and how they may pose a threat to Earth. But have you heard before of Trojan asteroids? What are they? And what’s the difference between them and other asteroids?
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The name “Trojan” may sound frightening, but don’t worry, these asteroids aren’t particularly dangerous to us on Earth. Short answer is that the name refers to any asteroid that is trapped in the lagrange points of a planet in the solar system.
But what does that mean? Let’s take a step back to better understand what Trojan asteroids are. We’ll actually go as far back as 1906 to take a look at a german astronomer named “Max Wolf” who observed an asteroid that seemed to always be ahead of Jupiter.
Later on, it was announced that this asteroid was actually trapped in one of Jupiter’s lagrange points, these are points that exist around planets’ orbits at which a small body could exist in a stable state.
Later on, more asteroids trapped in Jupiter’s lagrange points were found, and astronomers gave some of them names of Trojan war survivors. And by habit, all asteroids found trapped in lagrange points of planets in the solar system fell under the category “Trojan Asteroids.”
Scientists think that Trojan asteroids are leftovers from the same material that formed the outer planets in our solar system, that’s why studying them is very important in understanding the formation of not only gas planets, but also the whole of the solar system.
All this talk about Trojan asteroids is to discuss how NASA is now planning a mission called “Lucy” that’s going for the first time to visit and flyby some Trojan asteroids.
The mission’s spacecraft is an orbiter targeting four Trojan asteroids, in addition to a binary Trojan asteroid, which makes a total of six, in addition to an ordinary asteroid as well. And as “Lucy” travels between asteroids, it will also give us perspective into other extraterrestrial objects from afar.
This will mark “Lucy” as the first mission to be launched with this many targets around the Sun. Before we talk about these targets, let us first talk about the story behind the name.
The mission “Lucy” is named after a fossil hominid skeleton that was found in 1974 in Ethiopia and the name was chosen because the “Lucy” mission will give us insights into the evolution of the solar system just as much as the lucy fossil gave us insight about human evolution.
Now let’s begin with the first target named “(52246) Donaldjohanson” which is actually the name of the scientists who co-discovered the “Lucy” fossil. This asteroid however, is not a Trojan asteroid.
Rather, it’s a small main belt asteroid that Lucy will meet along the way and will serve as a test object for Lucy to practice its instruments. The asteroid is 4 kilometers (2-3 miles) in diameter which makes it the smallest of all of Lucy’s targets.
The asteroid is small in size, but big in status as it is believed to be a remnant survivor of a 130-million-year-old collision which makes for a very interesting case study of the history of asteroids.
Up next we have “(3548) Eurybates” which is the first Trojan asteroid “Lucy” will flyby and it’s located on the Lagrange point 4 (L4) in Jupiter’s orbit, the L4 point is also called the “Greek swarm” because most Trojan asteroids in this point are named after Greek characters.
“(3548) Eurybates” is a big asteroid with a 64 kilometer (40 miles) diameter, and observations made by the “Lucy” team back in January of 2019 revealed that it has another body orbiting it that is only 1 kilometer (0.5 mile) in size.
The next target is also located in the L4 point, called “(15094) Polymele” it is a 21 kilometer (13 miles) Trojan asteroid which makes it the smallest among all of Lucy’s Trojan targets. Scientists believe that this asteroid is rich in organic materials
Afterwards, “Lucy” will flyby the red and dark asteroid “(11351) Leucus” which is interesting in more than one way, first of all, a day on this asteroid is 466 Earth hours! And that’s because it rotates around itself very slowly.
Credits: Ron Miller
Credits: Nasa/Shutterstock/Storyblocks/Elon Musk/SpaceX/Swri
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