NASA’s Lucy continues to race toward its first target asteroid

The Lucy spacecraft is on a 12-year journey to visit eight different asteroids and has almost caught up with the first space rock on its checklist.

Since it launched in October 2021NASA’s Lucy mission has traveled over 33 million miles (54 million kilometers) in space. The spacecraft is now 7.6 million kilometers from its first target, a small asteroid called Dinikinesh. However, as the asteroid orbits the sun, Lucy must travel another 16 million miles (25 million kilometers) to finally rendezvous with Dinikinesh on November 1st NASA.

Last month, the team behind the mission noticed that the asteroid’s brightness increased as Lucy caught up with it. Lucy got it first look at its asteroid target on September 3rdand has been moving ever closer to Dinikinesh ever since. The spacecraft captured a series of images with its high-resolution L’LORRI camera as part of its optical navigation program. To determine the relative position of the spacecraft and its target, the optical navigation program uses the asteroid’s apparent position against the star background to ensure an accurate flyby.

Using this information, the spacecraft performed a small trajectory correction maneuver on September 29, changing its speed by about 0.1 miles per hour (6 centimeters per second), according to NASA. This subtle nudge will set Lucy on a flyby path that will pass within 265 miles (425 kilometers) of the asteroid. The team will have another opportunity in October to adjust the spacecraft’s trajectory if necessary.

Lucy experienced a brief communications outage from October 6 to mid-October as the spacecraft passed behind the Sun as seen from Earth. During this time, the mission was still busy capturing images of the asteroid that will be sent to Earth once communication with Lucy is restored.

Dinikinesh is a tiny space rock in the main asteroid belt, only about half a mile (1 kilometer) wide. The asteroid was recently added to the mission’s itinerary to test the spacecraft’s terminal tracking system, used for precise imaging during its high-speed encounters with the asteroids.

Lucy will begin her tour of the Trojan asteroids in 2027 with a visit to Eurybates and its binary pair Queta, followed by Polymele and its binary partner Leucus, Orus and the binary pair Patroclus and Menoetius. The Trojans are a group of asteroids that guide and follow Jupiter in its orbit around the Sun.

The mission is named after the famous australopithecine fossil found in 1974, while Dinikinesh, or ድንቅነሽ in Amharic, is the Ethiopian name for the fossil of a human ancestor, also known as Lucy. The asteroid was discovered in 1999 but remained unnamed until its discovery selected as a target for the mission in January.

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