The Lucy spacecraft slingshot around Earth on Sunday: how to see it

Lucy spacecraft will observe huge asteroids in the Trojan swarm
Stephen Vicinanza
NASA's Lucy Spacecraft
NASA's Lucy Spacecraft


NASA’s Lucy spacecraft, on its way to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, was launched in 2021. Once at the rocky location the craft will explore the region and send back data and images on how our solar system formed.

Lucy's journey

The journey to that distant locale is a complex one, needing the Earth’s gravity to “slingshot” the craft at a high speed for a second gravity assist, again around Earth, in two years time. This will set the NASA craft on a course for Jupiter.

When Lucy will stop by

This Sunday, Lucy will skip along Earth’s atmosphere as part of its first slingshot process. It will approach to within just a scant 240 miles above the ground. That’s lower than the International Space Station which orbits at 250 miles above Earth’s surface.

This low fly-by will offer watchers in Western Australia and the Western USA a chance to see Lucy in her quick trek across the atmosphere.

There are risks

The fly-by doesn’t come risk-free, as Lucy must navigate around Earth-orbiting satellites, and dodge a large amount of space debris. To prevent a potentially catastrophic collision, NASA has developed a system capable of anticipating potential hazards. Lucy is designed to execute small maneuvers to avoid collisions.

How to watch Lucy

Lucy will streak by Western Australia at approximately 6:55AM (6:55 pm local time) Sunday, October 16. The spacecraft that NASA will be monitoring, will be clearly visible as a bright light for about seven minutes, until it passes into the shadow of the Earth.

Lucy will continue her journey over the Pacific Ocean in darkness and emerge again from the shadows of the Earth at 7:26 am ET (4:26 a.m. PT). At this juncture if skies are clear, star gazers can get a glimpse of Lucy through binoculars as she arrives in the southwestern sky.

“The last time we saw the spacecraft, it was being enclosed in the payload fairing in Florida,” said Hal Levison, Lucy principal investigator at the Colorado-based Southwest Research Institute. “It is exciting that we will be able to stand here in Colorado and see the spacecraft again. And this time Lucy will be in the sky.”

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Where Lucy is off too next

Lucy will then continue away from Earth past the moon, and then out into interplanetary space. Two years from Sunday Lucy will return to Earth’s orbit for a second gravity-assist maneuver. Lucy will then travel on, reaching her final destination in 2025.

Once there she will observe the asteroid Donaldjohanson before heading into the leading Trojan asteroid swarm. There NASA will observe Lucy passing by six Trojan asteroids.

Back a third time

At this point Lucy will break away from the asteroid swarm and head back towards Earth for a third gravity-assist maneuver in 2030. That will send the spacecraft hurdling towards the Patroclus-Menoetius binary asteroid pair in the trailing Trojan asteroid swarm.

The NASA solar system webpage is tracking Lucy in relation to the Earth Orbit, with real-time animation of Lucy’s journey around the Earth, and her slingshot into space.

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