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NASA’s Lucy mission struggles with solar array issue after launching to space

<i>Southwest Research Institute</i><br/>This illustration shows the Lucy spacecraft
Southwest Research Institute
Southwest Research Institute
This illustration shows the Lucy spacecraft

By Ashley Strickland, CNN

The first NASA mission that will fly by eight ancient asteroids launched early Saturday morning, but not everything went according to plan once the Lucy spacecraft reached space.

After Lucy successfully separated from the rocket, it deployed both solar arrays. However, NASA only received confirmation that one of the solar arrays fully unfurled and latched. The second array partially opened and did not latch to the spacecraft.

The Lucy spacecraft is more than 46 feet (14 meters) from tip to tip, largely due to its giant solar panels — each about the width of a school bus. They are designed to keep up a power supply to the spacecraft’s instruments. But Lucy also has fuel to help it execute some skilled maneuvers on the way to the asteroids within the orbit of Jupiter.

“Lucy will be NASA’s first mission to travel this far away from the sun without nuclear power,” said Joan Salute, associate director for flight programs at NASA’s Planetary Science Division, during a press conference last week.”In order to generate enough energy, Lucy has two very large circular solar arrays that open up like Chinese fans. These open up autonomously and simultaneously.”

Currently, the team says the Lucy spacecraft is healthy.

“The team continues to look at all available engineering data to establish how far it is deployed,” according to an update from NASA. “That solar array is generating nearly the expected power when compared to the fully deployed wing. This power level is enough to keep the spacecraft healthy and functioning.”

Since the partial solar array deployment, Lucy has been in safe mode and only running essential functions, but it transitioned to cruise mode on Tuesday.

“This mode has increased autonomy and spacecraft configuration changes, which is necessary as Lucy moves away from Earth,” according to the agency. “The team continues its assessment and an attempt to fully deploy the solar array is planned no earlier than the end of next week.”

The team confirmed that Lucy was able to fire its thrusters to turn the spacecraft using the current configuration of the solar arrays. It will continue making small thruster firings to help manage the spacecraft’s momentum, which was already planned, according to NASA.

The solar array issue has led to a temporary postponement of deploying the instrument pointing platform on the spacecraft, but all other post-launch activities are going according to plan. This platform holds the mission’s scientific instruments, including color and black-and-white cameras, a thermometer, and an infrared imaging spectrometer.

The team will assess if there are any other long-term implications as they look at the other scheduled activities for Lucy. Currently, no adjustments to the spacecraft’s trajectory will be needed until December.

Lucy is on a 12-year mission to explore Jupiter’s Trojan asteroid swarms, which have never been observed. The Trojan asteroids, which borrow their name from Greek mythology, orbit the sun in two swarms — one that’s ahead of Jupiter, the largest planet in our solar system, and a second one that lags behind it.

So far, our only glimpses of the Trojans have been artist renderings or animations created from previous research about the asteroids. Lucy will provide the first high-resolution images of what these asteroids look like.

Lucy is the first spacecraft designed to visit and observe these asteroids, which are remnants from the early days of our solar system. The mission will help researchers effectively peer back in time to learn how the solar system formed 4.5 billion years ago. Lucy’s 12-year mission could also help scientists learn how our planets ended up in their current spots.

The spacecraft is set to fly by an asteroid in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and then it will explore seven of the Trojans. Over the course of its mission, Lucy will end up swinging back to Earth’s orbit three separate times for gravity assists that can slingshot it on the right path. That will make Lucy the first spacecraft to travel to Jupiter and return to Earth.

The mission borrows its name from the Lucy fossil, the remains of an ancient human ancestor discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. The skeleton has helped researchers piece together aspects of human evolution, and the NASA Lucy team members hope their mission will achieve a similar feat regarding the history of our solar system.

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