Look up! NASA’s asteroid-hunting spacecraft will slingshot past Earth this weekend.

Look up! NASA’s asteroid-hunting spacecraft will slingshot past Earth this weekend.

Tomorrow morning at approximately 7: 04 a.m. EDT, NASA’s Lucy spacecraft will skim the Earth’s atmosphere, passing only 220 miles above the planet’s surfance. According to the agency, the spacecraft is going to be slingshotting past the Earth’s home in order to obtain some orbital energy to travel to an unknown population of asteroids. This flyby is even more celebratory because Sunday marks the first Anniversary of Lucy’s space launch .

At around 6: 55 a.m. EDT, Lucy makes its debut with observers on the ground in Western Australia (where it will be 6: 55 PM). The spacecraft will quickly pass overhead there and be visible without a telescope or binoculars before disappearing at 7: 02 a.m. EDT, when it passes into the Earth’s shadow. Lucy will continue its journey across the Pacific Ocean and will emerge from Earth’s shadow at 7: 26 AM EDT (a bright and early 4: 26 AM PTD). If there is no cloud cover, people in the west could see the spacecraft through binoculars.

[Related: How engineers saved NASA’s new asteroid probe when it malfunctioned in space. ]

“The last spacecraft we saw was being enclosed in the Florida payload fairing.” Hal Levison, Lucy principal investigator at Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), Boulder, Colorado office, in an press release . “It is thrilling that we will be in Colorado to see the spacecraft again. This time Lucy will be in space .”

After floating over the West Coast of California, Lucy will quickly recede from Earth’s orbit. It will pass by the moon to obtain a few calibration images before moving into interplanetary space.

“I’m particularly excited by the last few images that Lucy will capture of the moon,” stated John Spencer, acting deputy scientist at SwRI, in an . press release. “Counting craters is key to understanding the collisional history Trojan asteroids is key for the science that Lucy will perform. This will be the first chance to calibrate Lucy’s ability to detect them by comparing it with previous observations of Lucy by other space missions .”


[Related: This small asteroid has a tiny moon of its own. ]

One year into a 12-year voyage, NASA’s Lucy mission is the first spacecraft launched to explore the Trojan asteroids. These are primitive space rocks that orbit Jupiter. Sunday’s assistance from Earth’s gravitational fields will place Lucy on a new trajectory that will last for two years.

In 2024, it will return to Earth for a second gravity push that will give Lucy the energy needed to cross the solar system’s main asteroid belt. Once there, it will observe asteroid Donaldjohanson, and then travel into the leading Trojan asteroid swarm. After that, the spacecraft will fly past six Trojan asteroids: Eurybates and its satellite Queta, Polymele and its yet unnamed satellite, Leucus, and Orus. In 2030, Lucy will return to Earth for yet another bump that will gear it up for a rendezvous with the Patroclus-Menoetius binary asteroid pair in the trailing Trojan asteroid swarm.

Lucy’s current orbit will take the spacecraft even lower that the International Space Station. That means the probe will pass through a lot of Earth-orbiting satellites and debris. NASA has developed procedures to prevent potential hazards and can move Lucy to avoid collision.

Read More