NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center/Conceptual Image Lab/Adriana Gutierrez
NASA’s Lucy spacecraft is having difficulties with its solar panels. The spacecraft launched on Oct. 16th without incident, and sucessfully unfolded both its solar panels. But only one of its panels successfully latched into position.
Telemetry via NASA’s Deep Space Network shows that Lucy as a whole is still safe, and its mission is not in jeopardy. All other systems are normal. Nevertheless, NASA’s mission engineers are already on the problem. In a brief blog post, NASA announced the issue, and said, “In the current spacecraft attitude, Lucy can continue to operate with no threat to its health and safety. The team is analyzing spacecraft data to understand the situation and determine next steps to achieve full deployment of the solar array.”
While the spacecraft itself is not in danger, getting its panels back into mission spec is obviously preferred. Earth orbits at 1 AU, and the asteroids Lucy is destined to visit orbit at twice that distance or more. At 2 AU+, the spacecraft will receive perhaps three percent of the power it would receive if it were in Earth’s orbit around the sun.
Lucy’s mission is to visit a main-belt asteroid named 52246 Donaldjohnson, named after the discoverer of the Lucy fossil. The spacecraft will also visit several asteroids that orbit within the gravitational eddies at the Jupiter-Sun L4 and L5 points: the “Greek camp” and “Trojan camp” respectively. These eddies exist because they sit at points equidistant from the sun and Jupiter. While the Lagrange points don’t themselves have any gravitational pull, they are relatively stable with respect to the two-body system. Inertia lets orbiting bodies cluster there, rather than being drawn off into another path.
Lucy’s orbital track, long-term. Credit: Southwest Research Institute
NASA has had to deal with this type of repair before; they repaired a damaged and power-starved Skylab space station while it was in orbit, by freeing a frozen hinge on its damaged solar array. The agency also successfully contended with a stuck solar panel on the ISS back in 2006. So, the fix for Lucy may be as simple as folding the panels and unfolding them. But Skylab was in low-earth orbit, so we sent humans to fix it. We won’t have that option with Lucy, so hopefully the legendary ingenuity of NASA’s earthbound engineers will come through, as they have so many times before.
Lucy’s science payload is powered by the solar panels, so its mission could be hampered if those instruments can’t find the power to run. But the spacecraft’s transit to the asteroid belt is controlled by other means. Fourteen hydrazine thrusters, made by Aerojet Rocketdyne, are responsible for propulsion and course corrections.
The probe’s mission is to visit the “fossils” of planet formation, and it was named for the fossilized skeleton of a hominin who changed our understanding of human evolution. That hominin was in turn named after the iconic Beatles song, which they were blasting on repeat in base camp that night, because reasons. Scientific instruments aboard the spacecraft include a thermal emission spectrometer titled L’TES, and a tool called L’Ralph that includes a color camera and an IR spectrometer. And in company with the black-and-white L’LORRI camera (wow, does this roster sound vaguely Vulcan), Lucy carries for one of its instruments a disc of pure, flawless lab-grown diamond. While multiple sources refer to this information, we weren’t able to find an explanation of which piece of equipment will use the diamond disc or how it contributes to the mission.
Assuming all goes well, Lucy will reach Donaldjohnson in April 2025.
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