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Kaboom! The Biggest Space Bloopers of 2019 – Space.com

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Spaceflight is hard, and sometimes things don’t go to plan. But by looking at past missions and learning from their mistakes, we can make future missions all the better. The year 2019 had a few major “lessons learned” for entities all around the world. 

From difficulties landing on the moon, to a few rocket explosions, engineers definitely had some new things to think about for the next time.  

Related: The Greatest Spaceflight Moments of 2019

 Iran rocket failures  

Image 1 of 4

President Donald Trump used Twitter to release this image of Iran’s rocket failure at the Khomeini Space Center on Aug. 29, 2019. Trump released the image, apparently a U.S. reconnaissance satellite view, on Aug. 30. (Image credit: President Donald Trump via Twitter)
Image 2 of 4

This view of Iran's rocket failure at Site One of its Khomeini Space Center was captured on Aug. 29, 2019 by the commercial WorldView-2 satellite operated by Maxar Technologies.

This view of Iran’s rocket failure at Site One of its Khomeini Space Center was captured on Aug. 29, 2019 by the commercial WorldView-2 satellite operated by Maxar Technologies. (Image credit: Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies)
Image 3 of 4

A wider view of Iran's rocket failure aftermath at the Khomeini Space Center on Aug. 29, 2019 as seen by the commercial WorldView-2 satellite operated by Maxar Technologies.

A wider view of Iran’s rocket failure aftermath at the Khomeini Space Center on Aug. 29, 2019 as seen by the commercial WorldView-2 satellite operated by Maxar Technologies. (Image credit: Satellite image ©2019 Maxar Technologies)
Image 4 of 4

One of Planet's SkySat Earth-observation satellites spotted the wreckage of a failed Iranian rocket launch on Aug. 29, 2019.

One of Planet’s SkySat Earth-observation satellites spotted the wreckage of a failed Iranian rocket launch on Aug. 29, 2019. (Image credit: Planet Labs, Inc.)

Iran experienced its fair share of rocket failures in 2019. In January, the third stage of a rocket called Simorgh did not reach its “necessary speed” to successfully heft the Payam satellite into its planned orbit, Telecommunications Minister Mohammad Javad Azari Jahromi told AP News

In February, satellite images from company DigitalGlobe showed an Iranian satellite called Doosti (“Friendship” in Persian) likely launched, but multiple sources suggested it did not make it safely to orbit. Then in August, more satellite imagery from Planet showed a rocket that had apparently exploded on the pad, in footage that was first shared exclusively with NPR. 

China rocket & satellite failure

This nation had an extraordinarily productive late 2019, when (among many other milestones) it successfully launched two rockets in three hours from different launch sites – and two rockets in six hours from the same launch area. But there were some mistakes along the way. 

Chinese private company OneSpace had a launch failure in March 2019 that was later attributed to a gyroscope issue. In May, a Long March 4C rocket from the Chinese government failed during launch, due to an issue with the rocket’s third stage. An August launch of a Long March 3B rocket appeared to go well at first, but then its main payload — the Chinasat 18 satellite — failed to communicate with Earth.

 Israel’s moon crash 

In April of this year, Israel aimed for the moon with a novel lander called Beresheet built by the private group SpaceIL. The probe, which launched Feb. 21 on a SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket, was poised to become the first privately built moon lander to softly set down on the lunar surface. But when it arrived at the moon on April 11, something went wrong. 

Instead of landing safely on the moon’s Sea of Serenity, Beresheet missed its landing burn and crashed into the lunar surface instead. Despite the failure, SpaceIL has vowed to build a new Beresheet and return to the moon in the mid-2020s. 

 SpaceX Crew Dragon abort explosion 

An engine test of SpaceX’s Crew Dragon, which will eventually bring astronauts to the International Space Station, did not go to plan on April 20. Local media reports and images showed a huge plume of smoke emanating from the test site

“Earlier today, SpaceX conducted a series of engine tests on a Crew Dragon test vehicle on our test stand at Landing Zone 1 in Cape Canaveral, Florida,” a company spokesperson told Space.com in a statement. “The initial tests completed successfully, but the final test resulted in an anomaly on the test stand.” A leaky valve and faulty component were later found to be the causes of the fire. 

SpaceX has since fixed the problem and performed a series of successful ground tests of Crew Dragon’s abort system. The company will launch an uncrewed In-Flight Abort test flight no earlier than Jan. 11, and aims to begin flying people to the space station in 2020. 

 Arianespace Vega failure 

French company Arianespace experienced a major anomaly in July when its Vega rocket, carrying the United Arab Emirates’ FalconEye1 satellite, failed to get the rocket or the satellite safely into space. In September, the European Space Agency said that the Z23 motor – which powers the second stage of the rocket – was the cause. 

“The commission identified the anomaly’s most likely cause as a thermo-structural failure in the forward dome area of the Z23 motor,” ESA wrote In a statement. Vega will most likely return to flight in 2020 once corrective action is taken to stop the failure from happening again, the agency added.

 India’s moon crash 

 On Sept. 6, the India Chandrayaan-2 moon lander Vikram made a descent to the moon  —  then stopped communicating with Earth. 

The Indian Space Research Organisation spent more than two months trying to find the little lander, before determining that it had indeed crashed on the surface. The suspected cause is an issue with the braking thrusters, which were supposed to slow down Vikram during its last few feet before soft-landing. Vikram instead “hard landed” within view of its landing site. 

 A stuck “mole” on Mars 

The InSight Mars lander experienced a number of issues trying to get its drill deep enough into the Martian surface to look at heat flow on the Red Planet. 

During several attempts, the “mole” got stuck because the regolith (soil) was harder than expected. At one point, the mole even popped out of the hole. Engineers eventually hit upon the idea of using a robotic arm to pin the drill against the soil during penetration. 

As of late December, the mole is moving under the surface again

 Exos Aerospace rocket crash 

 An Exos Aerospace suborbital sounding rocket (which flies into the upper atmosphere) failed during a launch attempt on Oct. 26. The Suborbital Autonomous Rocket with GuidancE (SARGE) rocket’s mission ended after the launch attempt at Spaceport America in New Mexico. 

The problem was later traced to the failure of a part underneath the nose cone; the nose cone fell back into the rocket and the rocket’s trajectory veered beyond recovery.

 SpaceX’s Starship prototype pops 

Starship Mk1 had an anomaly in November, blowing its top during a cryogenic pressure test at SpaceX’s facilities near the South Texas village of Boca Chica. 

SpaceX plans to move to more advanced prototypes of Starship rather than repairing and retesting this particular one, CEO Elon Musk said in a tweet. These prototypes are forming part of the testing program for Starship, which is expected to bring astronauts into deep space (including Mars) in the coming years.

SpaceX was already building a second Starship prototype, the Mk2, in Florida. After the Mk1 anomaly, the company decided to put its resources behind the construction of a third new prototype, the Mk3, at its Boca Chica test site. 

 Boeing Starliner in wrong orbit

Like SpaceX, Boeing has a NASA contract to fly eventually fly astronauts on trips to the International Space Station. To do that, Boeing has built a new space capsule, called the CST-100 Starliner, which is designed to launch into orbit on an Atlas V rocket, dock itself at the station and return to Earth to make a land-based landing with parachutes and airbags. 

On Dec. 20, Boeing launched the first Starliner test flight to the International Space Station, but the uncrewed mission never made it to its destination. A mission clock error caused the Starliner to think it was in a later part of its mission, leading the spacecraft to use propellant it vitally needed for the trip to the station. In the end, Starliner’s clock error and a communications issue forced Boeing to abandon hopes of reaching the space station. The planned eight-day mission was cut to just three, with Starliner returning to Earth and landing successfully

While Starliner successfully launched and landed, its failure to reach the space station has NASA and Boeing discussing whether another uncrewed test flight will be required before astronauts can start flying on the spacecraft in 2020.  

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace. Follow us on Twitter @Spacedotcom and on Facebook

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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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