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Is Betelgeuse About To Explode? – Forbes

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Rogelio Bernal Andreo

When you take a look at the stars in the night sky, they generally appear the same regardless of time. Only a small number of stars ever appear to change on human timescales, as most stars burn through their fuel very stably, with almost no variation in their continuous brightness. The few stars that do appear to change are either intrinsically variable, members of multi-star systems, or go through an enormous evolutionary change.

When very massive stars get close to the end of their lives, they start varying by tremendous amounts, and do so with significant irregularity. At a critical moment, most of these stars will run out of the nuclear fuel holding up their cores against collapse, and the resulting implosion leads to a runaway cataclysm: a core-collapse supernova. Could Betelgeuse, whose variability intensified in a novel way over the last few days, be about to explode? Here’s what astronomers know so far.

A. Dupree (CfA), R. Gilliland (STScI), NASA

The last time our species witnessed a supernova from within our own galaxy with the naked human eye, the year was 1604. A new point of light in the sky suddenly appeared, brightened, and briefly outshone every single star before slowly fading away. This wasn’t the first such event, as prior supernovae had illuminated Earth’s skies like this in 1572, 1054, and 1006, among others.

But all of those supernovae occurred from stars that were thousands of light-years away, with Kepler’s 1604 explosion being traced back to a stellar remnant located some 20,000 light-years across the Milky Way. Of all the stars we see in the night sky, one bright member stands out as the most fascinating possibility as our galaxy’s next supernova: Betelgeuse, one of our sky’s 10 brightest stars, located a mere 640 light-years away.

ESO/L. Calçada

Betelgeuse, best known as the bright red “shoulder” star in the constellation of Orion, is one of the most remarkable objects in all of astronomy. It is a red supergiant star: red because of its low surface temperatures, supergiant because its radius is so enormous that — if it were to replace the Sun in our Solar System — it would engulf the orbits of Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, the asteroid belt, and possibly even Jupiter! In terms of physical size, it’s approximately 900 times the radius, and 700 million times the volume, of our Sun.

Betelgeuse is so large and so close that it was the first star beyond our Sun to ever be resolved as more than a point source. But perhaps its most fascinating property is that Betelgeuse is a pulsating, variable star, meaning that its diameter and brightness both change with time.

NRAO/AUI and J. Lim, C. Carilli, S.M. White, A.J. Beasley, and R.G. Marson

At approximately 20 times the mass of our Sun, there’s little doubt that Betelgeuse is headed on it was to becoming a supernova. Betelgeuse was likely formed in the great Orion molecular cloud complex very recently on cosmic scales: within the last 10 million years. It has already finished burning through all the hydrogen fuel in its core, and has gone onto the next element, helium, which it fuses into carbon.

Perhaps ironically, the core of Betelgeuse is now much smaller than when it was fusing hydrogen, as it contracted and heated up tremendously in order to begin fusing helium. The outer layers, with this increased radiation pressure, expanded and cooled tremendously. At a surface temperature of only 3500 K, barely half the temperature of our Sun’s photosphere, only 13% of Betelgeuse’s energy output is detectable to human eyes. If we could see the entire electromagnetic spectrum from our perspective, Betelgeuse would outshine every star in the Universe except our Sun.

NASA / WISE

We aren’t sure whether Betelgeuse is exclusively fusing helium in its core, or whether the interior has contracted even further and is now fusing carbon. While the helium fusion phase lasts for timescales of ~100,000 years, carbon fusion lasts for merely hundreds. Unfortunately, the only signature that would give us a surefire view of what processes are occurring in the core — neutrino emissions — are too faint to be seen from 640 light-years away.

All we can observe, when it comes to Betelgeuse at the present, is what’s occurring in its outermost layers. When we look there, what we see is remarkable: it’s constantly losing mass, pulsing, having its outermost layers expelled, and changing over time in both its apparent brightness and redness.

ESO/P. Kervella

Recently, in just the past few weeks, its brightness has dropped tremendously, knocking it out of the top 10 brightest stars for the first time in many years. This dimming has led many to suspect that a supernova may be imminent, but this is extremely unlikely. The story is simple, straightforward, but not known by most people, with the exception of professional astronomers.

The key takeaway is this: what’s occurring in the outer layers of a supergiant star is largely unrelated to what processes are occurring in the inner core of a supergiant star. When you examine variable stars in general, you might think that the pulsing/variability that you see is because some process that’s changing in the core is propagating to the surface, but that’s not usually the case. Instead, there are huge convective cells in the outer layers of the star, and changes there are more than capable of causing this dimming.

AAVSO / Lautaro Vergara

In fact, if you look beyond the previous decade and instead go back to the past century, you’ll find that Betelgeuse has been this dim many, many times in the past. If you look beyond the photosphere of the star itself, you’ll find that there are enormous radio emissions that reveal the presence of expelled gas out beyond where the orbit of Neptune is around the Sun.

Similar dimming events have occurred before, reducing the brightness of Betelgeuse below even what it currently is at. But to see a dimming event occur this rapidly and this severely really hasn’t been seen before over the past century at all. It’s unlikely to be a signature of an imminent supernova, but we have to remember that since the advent of modern astronomy, we’ve never seen a star up close in the lead-up to a supernova. Whether there’s a detonation about to happen or not, something fascinating is truly occurring.

Bernd Freytag with Susanne Höfner & Sofie Liljegren

What’s not up for debate is how truly remarkable the processes at play are here. On our Sun alone, the sized of the convective cells that we find are larger than the continent of North America, with sunspots frequently exceeding the size of Earth. On the surface of a red supergiant — thousands of times larger than our Sun — there might only be a handful of convective cells altogether, causing it to look like, according to astronomer Emily Levesque, a “wacky, giant, boiling amoeba-star,” as simulated above.

Our actual astronomical maps of Betelgeuse cannot yet attain that kind of resolution, but can still reveal the following properties of Betelgeuse:

  • its irregular shape,
  • its uneven, non-uniform temperature,
  • localized hot spots,
  • and even faint plumes of illuminated ejecta near the photosphere itself.

ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)/E. O’Gorman/P. Kervella

The opportunity to study a red supergiant up close, one that’s about to go supernova relatively soon (at least, on astronomical timescales), has never occurred like this before. At only 640 light-years distant, Betelgeuse could have gone supernova at any time since the 14th century and that signal would not yet have arrived here on Earth.

When that supernova does occur, however, we’re in for a real treat. The runaway fusion reaction that occurs in the final few instants of the star’s life will generate neutrinos that should lead to millions of detectable events here our terrestrial neutrino detectors. The star will brighten to the point where it will rival or possibly even exceed the brightness of the full Moon, casting brilliant shadows at night and being clearly visible during the day for more than a year.

Wikimedia Commons user HeNRyKus / Celestia

Unfortunately, though, the key question of exactly when Betelgeuse is going to go supernova is one that we’re not any closer to having an answer to. Until we can measure the processes occurring in the star’s core, which would require a neutrino telescope far more powerful than all the neutrino observatories on Earth combined, we cannot know which elements are being fused inside of it.

Right now, our best models are consistent with helium-burning rather than any of the heavier elements, indicating that we have at least hundreds of years — and possibly hundreds of thousands — until the inevitable supernova finally detonates. If you haven’t checked out the constellation of Orion recently, though, take a good look and notice how much dimmer red Betelgeuse is than blue Rigel, a severe departure from its past decade of appearances. A supernova may not be imminent, but is sure is fascinating to watch and hope!

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NASA’s Lucy Launches on 12-Year Mission to Jupiter’s Trojan Asteroids – The New York Times

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The elaborate journey of the robotic spacecraft will offer close encounters with some of the solar system’s least understood objects.

The spacecraft is designed to study clusters of asteroids along Jupiter’s orbital path, known as the Trojan swarms, as it seeks to answer questions about the origins of the solar system and how life might have emerged on Earth.Ben Smegelsky/NASA

NASA embarked on a 12-year mission to study a group of asteroids on Saturday with the launch of Lucy, a robotic explorer that will meander through the unexplored caverns of deep space to find new clues about the creation of our solar system.

The 5:34 a.m. Eastern time liftoff from Kennedy Space Center in Florida atop an Atlas 5 rocket from United Launch Alliance was the first step of Lucy’s four-billion mile path into the orbital neighborhood of Jupiter. There, two swarms of asteroids known as the Trojans have hid for billions of years, leftover debris from the solar system’s early formation.

The spacecraft launched before dawn, setting off toward the orbit that will begin its elaborate trajectory. Lucy separated from the rocket’s second stage booster roughly an hour after liftoff and about a half an hour later unfurled two circular solar panels that will power the spacecraft throughout its journey.

Orbiting the sun on each side of Jupiter, the two clouds of dark asteroids have only been scrutinized by scientists from afar. Some 10,000 have been identified of the roughly one million that are estimated to exist. Lucy will be the first spacecraft to dive directly into the clusters to get close-up views of seven unique Trojan asteroids, plus one tiny asteroid in the solar system’s main asteroid belt.

“The last 24 hours has just been a roller coaster of excitement and buildup and everything was a success,” Hal Levison, Lucy’s principal investigator, said on a NASA livestream after launch. “We have one chance really to do this, the planets are literally aligning in order to make this trajectory happen.”

He and the mission’s other scientists hope that the sedan-size spacecraft will uncover pieces of evidence about the migration of planets to their current orbits.

The Lucy spacecraft’s mission will last 12 years and complete encounters with numerous asteroids in the Trojan swarms that share Jupiter’s orbital path.
John Raoux/Associated Press

The Lucy probe, named after the fossilized skeleton of an early hominid ancestor that transformed our understanding of human evolution, will use a suite of scientific instruments to analyze the Trojan asteroids — celestial fossils that the mission’s scientists hope will transform human knowledge about the formation of the solar system.

Managed by the Southwest Research Institute, with a spacecraft built for NASA by Lockheed Martin, the total cost of the mission is $981 million. The spacecraft is roughly the size of a small car and weighs about 3,300 pounds when filled with fuel.

Its scientific instruments include L’TES, or the Lucy Thermal Emission Spectrometer — a telescope designed to scan asteroid surfaces for infrared radiation and measure how quickly or slowly the space rocks’ surfaces heat up and cool down with exposure to the sun’s heat. Built by scientists at Arizona State University, the gadget is essentially an advanced thermometer. Analyzing how quickly the asteroids build up heat gives scientists an idea of how much dust and rocky material is scatted across their surfaces.

Another device is L’LORRI, or the Lucy Long Range Reconnaissance Imager, built by engineers and scientists at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. This telescope will capture black-and-white images of the asteroids’ surfaces, revealing craters and ridges that have long been shrouded in darkness.

Lucy’s third tool, L’Ralph, has both a color camera and an infrared spectrometer. Each instrument is designed to detect bands of light emitted by ices and minerals scientists expect to be present on the asteroids’ surfaces.

Bill Ingalls/NASA, via Associated Press

Touring the Trojan Asteroids

NASA’s Lucy spacecraft launched this month on a 12-year mission to study the Trojan asteroids, fragments of the early solar system that are now trapped in gravitationally stable areas near Jupiter.




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Jupiter

L4 swarm of

Trojan asteroids

“Greek camp”

L5 swarm of

Trojan asteroids

“Trojan camp”

Orus

2028

Leucus

2028

Patroclus,

Menoetius

2033

Lucy’s

orbital path,

from Jupiter’s

perspective

Polymele

2027

Eurybates

2027

Donaldjohanson

Asteroid flyby in 2025

Earth

at launch

Sun

ASTEROID

BELT

1-year loop

around sun

2021–22

L2

Jupiter

at launch

2-year loop

around sun

2022–24

Jupiter

L1

L4

L5

Sun

Sun

L3

From the sun’s perspective, above, Lucy will make a series of loops toward Jupiter’s orbit, while Jupiter orbits the sun once every 12 Earth years.

Trojan asteroids are clustered around two of Jupiter’s five Lagrange points, where the gravity of the sun and the planet are balanced.

Jupiter

L4 swarm of

Trojan asteroids

“Greek camp”

L5 swarm of

Trojan asteroids

“Trojan camp”

Leucus

2028

Lucy’s

orbital path,

from Jupiter’s

perspective

Orus

2028

Polymele

2027

Patroclus,

Menoetius

2033

Eurybates

2027

Donaldjohanson

Flyby in 2025

Earth

at launch

Sun

ASTEROID

BELT

L2

Jupiter

at launch

Jupiter

L1

L4

L5

Sun

Sun

L3

From the sun’s perspective, above, Lucy will make a series of loops toward Jupiter’s orbit, while Jupiter orbits the sun once every 12 Earth years.

Trojan asteroids are clustered around two of Jupiter’s Lagrange points, where the gravity of the sun and the planet are balanced.

Eurybates

Flyby in 2027

Polymele

2027

Orus

2028

Leucus

2028

L4 swarm of

Trojan asteroids

“Greek camp”

Donaldjohanson

Flyby in 2025

Earth

at launch

Jupiter

ASTEROID

BELT

Sun

Lucy’s orbital path,

from Jupiter’s

perspective

L5 swarm of

Trojan asteroids

“Trojan camp”

Patroclus and

Menoetius

2033

L2

Jupiter

at launch

Jupiter

L1

L4

L5

Sun

Sun

L3

From the sun’s perspective, above, Lucy will make a series of loops toward Jupiter’s orbit, while Jupiter orbits the sun once every 12 Earth years.

Trojan asteroids cluster around two of Jupiter’s Lagrange points, where the gravity of the sun and the planet are balanced.


By Jonathan Corum | Sources: NASA; Southwest Research Institute; NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

The spacecraft will spend 12 years hunting down eight asteroids, embarking on an intricate path that uses Earth’s gravity three times to slingshot itself around the sun and through the two swarms of Trojans under Jupiter’s gravitational influence. As it journeys from one side of Jupiter’s orbital path to the other, Lucy will travel roughly four billion miles during its primary mission.

Lucy’s Targets

The Lucy spacecraft will test its sensors on a small asteroid named after Donald Johanson, discoverer of the Lucy skeleton. The spacecraft will then make six flybys of Trojan asteroids, ranging in size from a tiny moon to a large binary asteroid.




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Donaldjohanson

Flyby in April 2025

Main belt asteroid

Polymele

Sept. 2027

Trojan asteroid

Orus

Nov. 2028

Trojan asteroid

APPROX. 50 MILES

Eurybates

Aug. 2027

Trojan asteroid with

a tiny moon, Queta

Leucus

April 2028

Trojan asteroid

Patroclus

and Menoetius

Flyby in March 2033

Binary Trojan asteroid

Donaldjohanson

Flyby in April 2025

Main belt asteroid

Eurybates

Aug. 2027

Trojan asteroid with

a tiny moon, Queta

Polymele

Sept. 2027

Trojan asteroid

Leucus

April 2028

Trojan asteroid

Orus

Nov. 2028

Trojan asteroid

Patroclus and Menoetius

Flyby in March 2033

Binary Trojan asteroid

APPROX. 50 MILES

Donaldjohanson

Flyby in April 2025

Main belt asteroid

Eurybates

Aug. 2027

Trojan asteroid with

a tiny moon, Queta

Polymele

Sept. 2027

Trojan asteroid

Leucus

April 2028

Trojan asteroid

Orus

Nov. 2028

Trojan asteroid

Patroclus and Menoetius

Flyby in March 2033

Binary Trojan asteroid

APPROX. 50 MILES


By Jonathan Corum | Illustrations are artist’s impressions adapted from NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center Conceptual Image Lab

The Trojan asteroids are swarms of rocky material left over from the formation of our solar system 4.6 billion years ago. No spacecraft has ever visited the asteroids, which orbit the sun on each side of Jupiter and in the same orbital path, but at a great distance from the giant planet.

Before it gets to the Trojans, it will fly by an asteroid in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter that is named after Donald Johanson, the scientist who discovered the Lucy skeleton. The spacecraft will first visit 52246 Donaldjohanson in April 2025 and will then proceed to its primary destinations.

Lucy will make six flybys of the Trojan asteroids, one of which has a small moon, resulting in seven Trojans visited. The observations should give scientists a diverse set of asteroid material to analyze back on Earth.

The Trojan asteroids have been hidden in darkness and nearly impossible to analyze. Scientists expect them to be an unexplored fount of data to test theoretical models about the solar system’s formation and how the planets ended up in their current orbits around the sun.

Two more asteroid missions will eventually follow Lucy, along with:

  • DART: Launching in November, NASA’s Double Asteroid Redirect Test (DART) mission involves crashing a spacecraft into an asteroid to nudge it off course. The mission tests out a method of planetary defense that could one day come in handy should an asteroid threaten Earth.

  • James Webb Space Telescope: A roughly $10 billion follow-up to NASA’s well-known Hubble telescope, the Webb is scheduled to, at last, launch in December. It will study planets orbiting distant stars and search for light from the first galaxies that formed after the Big Bang.

  • Artemis-1: NASA aims in the months ahead to launch an uncrewed Orion astronaut capsule atop its massive Space Launch System rocket around the moon and back. It’s the first mission under the agency’s Artemis program, which aims to one day send American astronauts back to the moon.

  • Psyche: Next year, NASA is scheduled to send a probe to Psyche, a metallic asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter made of nickel and iron that resembles the core of an early planetary body. Like the asteroids of Lucy’s mission, it could provide clues to the formation of our solar system.

  • Europa Clipper: In 2024, NASA intends to send a spacecraft toward Jupiter to scan the icy moon Europa and determine whether its subsurface ocean could harbor life.

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China's Chang'e-5 mission offers new insights into evolution of Moon – CCTV

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BEIJING, Oct. 19 (Xinhua) — Chinese researchers have studied the
lunar samples brought back by the Chang’e-5 mission and dated the
youngest rock on the Moon at around 2 billion years in age, extending
the “life” of lunar volcanism 800-900 million years longer than
previously known.

The study, conducted mainly by a research team at the Institute of
Geology and Geophysics (IGG), Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS), was
presented in three Nature papers and published online Tuesday.

Last year, China’s Chang’e-5 mission retrieved samples from the Moon
weighing about 1,731 grams, which were the first lunar samples in the
world in over 40 years.

“The Chang’e-5 mission was a success and the lunar samples brought
back shed new light on the evolution of the Moon,” said Li Xianhua, an
academician with CAS who led the research team.

DATING MOON ROCKS

“The magma of the Moon has solidified, and the Moon’s geologic
activity has already ceased. When the Moon’s volcanic activity stopped,
it emerged as one of the major issues in its evolutionary history,” said
Li Qiuli, head of the secondary ion mass spectrometry laboratory of
IGG.

The youngest dated rock from the Apollo and Luna missions and lunar
meteorites was around 2.8-2.9 billion years old. However, more samples
are needed and one of the Chang’e-5 tasks is to explore the youngest
magmatic activity of the Moon.

“The dimply surface we see when we look up at the Moon through a
telescope is due to the fact that many asteroids have collided with it
over billions of years. Older rocky regions have experienced more impact
craters over time, and regions with younger rocks have fewer craters,”
said Li Qiuli.

Using the method of chronology known as crater counting, researchers
inferred that the Oceanus Procellarum, the landing site of the Chang’e-5
mission, was most likely to have been witness to one of the Moon’s last
volcanic eruptions. Researchers could then calibrate the results from
crater counting with radioisotopically dated samples.

Radioisotopic dating works on the principle that radioactive elements
have constant decay rates. By measuring the relative abundances of the
parent and daughter isotopes, researchers will know how long the decay
has been taking place.

Using the microscope, researchers manually picked out rock fragments
from their 3-gram lunar samples, which is as difficult as separating
black flour from white flour by hand. Most of these minerals suitable
for dating are only one-twentieth of the diameter of a hair.

Li Qiuli said that the research team had been well-prepared for
studying the lunar samples retrieved by China, and has continuously
developed the ion probe technology in the past decade, reaching an
internationally acclaimed level of expertise.

“Our palms were sweaty as we loaded the sample and turned on the mass
spectrometer. When we saw the age it spat out, we couldn’t believe our
luck. But we wanted to be sure,” said Li Qiuli, adding that they carried
out more than 200 tests.

In total, the team analyzed 47 different rock fragments extracted
from the sample materials and dated the youngest rock on the Moon at
2.03 billion years old. The new age extends the life of lunar volcanism
800-900 million years longer than previously known.

OUT OF EXPECTATION

“The Moon is only around one percent the mass of Earth. At that
strikingly small size, theoretically, at least, it should have
completely solidified at a quick pace. Our team investigated further why
volcanic activity still existed on the Moon so late,” said Li Xianhua.

Lunar scientists focused on KREEP, an acronym built from the letters K
(for potassium), REE (for rare-earth elements) and P (for phosphorus),
which is a distinctive geochemical component of some lunar rocks.

“A widely accepted hypothesis is that radioactive elements (U, Th and
K) supplied the heat necessary for the late volcanic activity. Because
KREEP is rich in radiogenic elements U, Th and K, it is therefore
thought to be responsible for the young volcanic activity,” said Yang
Wei, a researcher with IGG.

“Isotopes are an effective way to identify the KREEP component as
they are like the DNA of a rock and will not change through the magmatic
evolution,” said Yang.

However, the difficulty lies in the small size of the basalt clasts
in the Chang’e-5 lunar samples. It is hard to obtain the isotope ratios
of the Chang’e-5 basalt.

“It’s like DNA testing, which requires a large tube of blood, but we can only use one drop,” said Yang.

Thanks to the institute’s efforts over a decade, a state-of-the-art
method for analyzing samples under high magnification has been
developed, allowing researchers to obtain the strontium and neodymium
isotope ratios of specific minerals.

The results were beyond expectations. The Chang’e-5 basalt, the
youngest basalt dated on the Moon so far, originated from a depleted
mantle source with a KREEP component measuring less than 0.5 percent of
its weight.

In other words, it is unlikely that the KREEP components in the lunar
mantle supplied the heat necessary for the late volcanic activity.

WATER CONTENT

Another possible cause of volcanic activity on the Moon at such a
late age is that the mantle source might have contained water to reduce
its melting point, said scientists.

“The water content of the lunar mantle is a key question for lunar
exploration because it provides critical constraints on the formation of
the Moon. Furthermore, since water can significantly decrease the
melting temperature of rocks, understanding its abundance is important
for understanding the history of lunar volcanism,” said Lin Yangting, a
researcher with IGG.

The large discrepancy in water abundance estimates of the lunar
mantle could be mainly attributed to the Apollo samples and lunar
meteorites being generally quite old.

Most previous lunar samples with measured water content date back to 3
billion years or earlier. Such old rocks could have undergone heavy
modifications over a long time by the impact of asteroids and particles
from the sun.

“The samples retrieved by Chang’e-5 were from a single basaltic lava
flow. With such a simple and clear geological setting, the samples,
therefore, provide a good opportunity to address the question of whether
the mantle reservoir at 2 billion years was wet or dry,” said Lin.

The research team analyzed the water contents and hydrogen isotopes
of pockets of melt preserved in some minerals as well as the mineral
apatite, which can contain water, from Chang’e-5 basalts.

“We used a nano-scale ion probe called the nanoSIMS, a secondary ion
mass spectrometer with an ion beam down to 50 nanometers in diameter.
The relative abundances of the two isotopes of hydrogen (deuterium [D]
and hydrogen [H]) can serve as a ‘fingerprint’ to trace the reservoirs
of water and the magmatic processes involved,” said Lin.

The results indicated that the mantle source of the Chang’e-5 basalts
was drier than the estimated water content based on the Apollo samples
and lunar meteorites, which rules out the possibility that high water
content in the mantle source was the cause of the usually young volcanic
eruption.

The mystery of the late lunar volcanic activity is yet to be solved.

“Our discoveries raise new questions for the future of lunar
exploration and scientists need to further explore the formation
mechanism of the lunar magma,” said Li Xianhua.

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NASA’s Latest Mission to Explore Asteroids Near Jupiter’s Orbit – VOA Learning English

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The latest mission of the American space agency, NASA, will explore a group of ancient objects orbiting the sun at the distance of Jupiter.

Set to launch October 16, the Lucy spacecraft is designed to study Jupiter’s “Trojan” asteroids.

These asteroids are small bodies left over from the formation of our solar system’s large planets. They share an orbit with Jupiter as the planet goes around the sun.

The mission’s aim is to gather new information about the solar system’s formation 4.5 billion years ago.


In this image released by NASA, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with the Lucy spacecraft aboard is rolled out of the Vertical Integration Facility to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (Bill Ingalls/NASA)

Lucy will observe eight asteroids over 12 years. One orbits in what is known as the Asteroid Belt, an area between Mars and Jupiter. Most known asteroids orbit within this area.

The spacecraft will also observe seven Trojan asteroids. The Trojans circle the sun in two groups. One group leads Jupiter in its orbital path, while the other follows behind it. Lucy will be the first spacecraft to visit these asteroids. There are believed to be more than 7,000 Trojan asteroids.

Scientists consider the Trojan asteroids to be the ancient remains of the formation of the solar system. They have stayed captured in Jupiter’s orbit for billions of years. Scientists hope that the NASA mission can provide new details about what conditions were like when the planets formed. They also hope the mission will lead to a better understanding of our own planet’s history.

The spacecraft was named Lucy after the ancient fossil discovered in Ethiopia in 1974. Lucy was one of the most famous scientific finds of the 20th century. The collection of skeletal bones gave scientists a better understanding of the evolution of humans.

Cathy Olkin is a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Colorado. She is the deputy lead investigator for the Lucy mission. In a video explaining the mission, Olkin compared the NASA spacecraft to the Lucy fossil.

“Just like the Lucy fossil transformed our understanding of (human) evolution, the Lucy mission will transform our understanding of solar system evolution,” she said.

Principal Investigator for NASA's Lucy spacecraft, Hal Levison, speaks with a reporter at the AstroTech facility Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, in Titusville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)


Principal Investigator for NASA’s Lucy spacecraft, Hal Levison, speaks with a reporter at the AstroTech facility Wednesday, Sept. 29, 2021, in Titusville, Fla. (AP Photo/John Raoux)

The spacecraft, built by NASA contractor Lockheed Martin, is expected to fly within 400 kilometers of its targets.

The spacecraft is equipped with several imaging instruments designed to capture information about the composition of materials on the surface of asteroids. Other equipment will be used to record asteroid surface temperatures and measure the size of the objects the spacecraft observes.

Lucy will depend on solar power to operate. NASA says the mission expects to set a record because Lucy will be deployed farther from the sun than any past solar powered spacecraft.

In this image released by NASA, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with the Lucy spacecraft aboard is rolled out of the Vertical Integration Facility to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (Bill Ingalls/NASA)


In this image released by NASA, a United Launch Alliance Atlas V rocket with the Lucy spacecraft aboard is rolled out of the Vertical Integration Facility to the launch pad at Space Launch Complex 41, Thursday, Oct. 14, 2021, in Cape Canaveral, Fla. (Bill Ingalls/NASA)

Hal Levison is the mission’s chief scientist. He recently told reporters that although the Trojan asteroids are in a very small area of space, they are physically different from each another.

“For example, they have very different colors, some are grey, some are red,” Levison said. He added that these differences suggest how far away from the Sun they might have formed before getting to their current positions.

Lori Glaze is the director of NASA’s planetary science division. She said: “Whatever Lucy finds will give us vital clues about the formation of our solar system.”

I’m Bryan Lynn.

Bryan Lynn wrote this story based on reports from NASA, Agence France-Presse and Lockheed Martin. Mario Ritter, Jr. was the editor.

We want to hear from you. Write to us in the Comments section, and visit our Facebook page.

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Words in This Story

mission – n. an important project or trip, especially involving space travel

asteroid – n. one of many large rocks that circle the sun

fossil – n. part of an animal or plant from thousands of year ago, preserved as minerals in rock

evolution – n. a gradual process of change and development

transform – v. to change something completely, usually to improve it

composition – n. the parts, substances, etc. that something is made up of

vital – adj. necessary or important

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