Lucy spacecraft adjusts course for date with tiny asteroid Dinkinesh before historic Trojan mission

NASA's Lucy spacecraft, en route to the Trojan asteroids, has adjusted its trajectory for a rendezvous with the tiny asteroid Dinkinesh in November 2023.
Daniel Lehewych

"Rosetta triumphs at asteroid Lutetia" by europeanspaceagency is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

NASA's Lucy spacecraft, en route to the intriguing Trojan asteroids, made a crucial course adjustment on May 9, setting it on the path to encounter the diminutive asteroid Dinkinesh later this year.

According to NASA, Lucy's current trajectory means the probe will visit Dinkinesh in November 2023. This small, half-mile-wide asteroid serves as a pit stop before Lucy embarks on a historic journey to the Trojan asteroids—space rocks trailing Jupiter's orbit.

While hurtling towards its target at a whopping 42,000 mph, Lucy underwent a small but significant course-adjusting maneuver. The operation tweaked the spacecraft's velocity by a mere 7.7 mph. Still, this tiny shift will bring Lucy about 40,000 miles closer to Dinkinesh during their planned rendezvous on Nov. 1, 2023.

Why the interest in the Trojan asteroids?

These celestial bodies share Jupiter's orbit and are remnants from the primordial material that gave rise to the planets over 4.5 billion years ago. Studying these relics from the early solar system could provide us with priceless insights into our planet's origins and perhaps even the genesis of life itself.

The probe's name, "Lucy," underscores this quest for origins. Just as the fossilized human ancestor named Lucy revealed critical details about human evolution, NASA hopes that the Lucy mission will illuminate our understanding of planetary origins and the solar system formation

During its fleeting encounter with Dinkinesh, Lucy will cruise past the asteroid at just 265 miles, clocking a relative speed of around 10,000 miles per hour.

Dinkinesh, which translates to "you are marvelous" in Amharic, the Ethiopian language, wasn't originally on Lucy's itinerary. Lucy, launched in October 2021, was set to explore eight Trojan asteroids over 12 years. But this tiny asteroid was added as a preliminary stop, providing a chance to fine-tune some of Lucy's instruments before reaching the Trojans.

Hal Levison, the principal investigator of Lucy from the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), humorously referred to Dinkinesh as "Dinky." He mentioned, "For a small asteroid, we expect it to help the Lucy mission."

As Lucy charts its course towards the Trojans, operators can fine-tune its trajectory further and calibrate its instruments using data collected from the Dinkinesh visit.

Post-Dinkinesh, Lucy's itinerary includes visiting the main belt asteroid (52246) Donaldjohanson in April 2025, followed by encounters with eight Trojan asteroids between 2027 and 2033. NASA takes pride in the mission, saying that "no other space mission in history has been launched to as many different destinations in independent orbits around our sun."

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