NASA’s Lucy spacecraft encounters first asteroid on journey to Jupiter

NASA’s Lucy spacecraft on Wednesday encountered the first of 10 asteroids on its long journey to Jupiter. It swooped past the pint-sized Dinkinesh, about 300 million miles away in the main asteroid belt beyond Mars. 

According to NASA, it was a ‘quick hello’ with the spacecraft zooming by at 10,000 mph. Lucy came within 270 miles (435 kilometers) of Dinkinesh, testing its instruments in a dry run for the bigger and more alluring asteroids ahead.

Dinkinesh is just a half-mile (1 kilometer) across, quite possibly the smallest of the space rocks on Lucy’s tour, the US Space Agency said. 

Lucy’s primary targets are the so-called Trojans, a group of undiscovered asteroids orbiting Jupiter that are thought to be ancient spacecraft preserved in time, AP reported. 

The spacecraft is expected to pass eight Trojans that have the potential to be up to 100 times larger than Dinkinesh. It is scheduled to fly by the last two asteroids in 2033.

Two years ago, NASA launched Lucy on her nearly $1 billion mission. The skeletal remains of a human ancestor discovered in Ethiopia in the 1970s, dating back 3.2 million years, inspired the name of the spacecraft. 

The asteroid that Lucy will next pass by is named after Donald Johanson, one of the people who discovered the fossil, Lucy, as per AP reports. 

The spacecraft still has one loose solar wing. Although the flight controllers were unable to stabilize it, it is thought to be sufficiently stable for the duration of the mission.

The flyby on Wednesday completes the asteroid known by NASA as Autumn. In September, NASA returned the first asteroid debris samples. It then launched a spacecraft to Psyche, a rare asteroid rich in metal, in October.

It will take at least a week for the spacecraft to send back all its pictures and data from the flyby.

Southwest Research Institute’s Hal Levison, the lead scientist said that Dinkinesh’s only been “an unresolved smudge in the best telescopes”. 


(With AP inputs)

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Updated: 03 Nov 2023, 12:23 PM IST

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