CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. — A NASA spacecraft named Lucy rocketed into the sky with diamonds Saturday morning on a 12-year quest to explore eight asteroids.
Seven mysterious space rocks are among swarms of asteroids sharing Jupiter’s orbit, considered the new leftovers of planetary formation.
An Atlas Voff before dawn, sending Lucy on a roundabout journey spanning nearly 4 billion miles (6.3 billion kilometers). Researchers grew emotional describing the successful launch — lead scientist Hal Levison said it was like witnessing the . “Go, Lucy!” he urged.
Lucy is named after the 3.2 million-year-old skeletalin Ethiopia nearly a half-century ago. That discovery got its name from the 1967 Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” prompting the spacecraft soaring with band members’ lyrics and other luminaries’ words of wisdom imprinted on a plaque. The spacecraft also carried a disc made of lab-grown diamonds for one of its science instruments.
In a prerecorded video for NASA, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr paid tribute to his late colleague John Lennon, credited for writing the song that inspired all this.
“I’m so excited — Lucy is returning to the sky with diamonds. Johnny will love that,” Starr said. “Anyway, if you meet anyone up there, Lucy, give them peace and love from me.”
Donald Johanson, the paleoanthropologist behind the fossil Lucy discovery, had goosebumps watching Lucy soar — “I will never look at Jupiter the same … mind-expanding.” He wondered about this “intersection of our past, present, and future.”
“That a human ancestor who lived so long ago stimulated a mission that promises to add valuable information about the formation of our solar system is inspiring,” said Johanson of Arizona State University, who traveled to Cape Canaveral for his first.
Lucy’s $981 million mission is the first to aim for Jupiter’s so-called Trojan entourage: thousands — if notthe gas giant’s expansive orbit around the sun. Some Trojan asteroids precede Jupiter in its orbit, while others trail it.
Despite their orbits, the Trojans are far from the planet and mostly scattered far from each other. So there’s essentially zero chance of Lucy getting clobbered by one as it swoops past its targets, said Levison of Southwest Research Institute, the mission’s principal scientist.
Lucy will swing past Earth next October and again in 2024 to get enough gravitational oomph to reach Jupiter’s orbit. On the way there, theDonaldjohanson between Mars and Jupiter. The aptly named rock will serve as a 2025 warm-up act for the science instruments.
Drawing power from two enormous circular solar wings, Lucy will chase down five asteroids in the2020s. The spacecraft will then zoom toward Earth for another gravity assists in 2030. That will send Lucy back out to the trailing Trojan cluster, which will zip past the final two targets in 2033 for a .