NASA has announced plans of launching its two new asteroid missions – Lucy and Psyche – in 2021 and 2023. A key role will be played by scientists and engineers at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory as they will be providing the instruments that will be used in the two spacecrafts.
The Lucy mission has been scheduled for a 2021 launch and it will be studying six of Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids during the mission lifetime. APL scientists will be building the “eagle eyes” for the Lucy by developing a high-resolution telescopic camera for the mission, which will perform the first reconnaissance of the Trojans, a population of primitive asteroids orbiting in tandem with Jupiter.
The APL instrument is the next-gen version of the Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, or LORRI, currently flying on the New Horizons spacecraft, which provided the first detailed close-up views of Pluto and its moons in July 2015. Among other capabilities, the L’LORRI camera—the first “L” added to mark its role on the Lucy mission—will produce Lucy’s highest spatial resolution surface maps, which will allow scientists to chart the asteroids’ geology and estimate surface ages.
The reason behind NASA’s decision of selecting Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids for further study is that scientists believe that these Trojans could provide unique and critical knowledge of planetary origins, the source of volatiles and organics on the terrestrial planets, and the evolution of the planetary system as a whole.
The Psyche mission will be taking off in 2023 with the goal of studying 16 Psyche – an asteroid that appears to be the exposed nickel-iron core of a protoplanet, one of the building blocks of the sun’s planetary system. For Psyche, APL will provide the Psyche Gamma Ray and Neutron Spectrometer, called the GRNS, which will detect, measure, and map the elemental composition of 16 Psyche, a rare and primarily metal asteroid in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. GRNS will test this hypothesis by measuring 16 Psyche’s elemental composition, and if confirmed, these observations will be the first to directly characterize the composition of a planetary core and provide insights into the inaccessible cores of the terrestrial planets, including Earth and Mars.