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Stargazers to catch a glimpse of NASA’s Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Thursday 13 October 2022 | By Yasmine Phillips
Image for Stargazers to catch a glimpse of NASA’s Lucy in the sky with diamonds

Curtin researchers have been tasked by NASA with observing the Lucy spacecraft – the first mission to explore the Trojan asteroids orbiting Jupiter – as it passes close to the Earth this weekend from the best vantage point in WA’s north.

The team from Curtin’s Desert Fireball Network will be in Port Hedland this weekend to observe the Earth encounter, alongside amateur stargazers and members of the public who will be able to capture photos from their mobile phones across the Pilbara and Kimberley regions of WA.

NASA’s Lucy mission, which launched into orbit last year, will explore a record-breaking number of asteroids, flying by one asteroid in the Solar System’s main asteroid belt and another seven Trojan asteroids.

The Jupiter Trojan asteroids are considered time capsules from the birth of our Solar System more than four billion years ago and the swarms of Trojan asteroids associated with Jupiter are thought to be remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets.

Planetary scientist Dr Eleanor Sansom, from Curtin’s Space Science and Technology Centre, said the Desert Fireball Network would capture video footage of NASA’s Lucy spacecraft as it flies closest to the Earth at about 7pm on Sunday, October 16.

“We are absolutely thrilled to be selected by NASA as the preferred near-earth observation team in the southern hemisphere,” Dr Sansom said.

“After travelling at about 108,000 kilometres per hour around the Sun, Lucy will come back towards the Earth this weekend for the spacecraft’s first gravity assist since launching on October 16, last year.”

Astronomer Dr Hadrien Devillepoix, also from Curtin’s Space Science and Technology Centre, said the Curtin team would play a role in the NASA mission.

“We are trying to get a glimpse of Lucy’s solar panel reflecting the Sun, and hopefully that will tell the NASA engineers whether the panels have fully deployed and are locked in place – a critical step before Lucy can fire up its main engine,” Dr Devillepoix said.

“The spacecraft will get very close to the Earth – at a similar altitude as low-Earth orbiting satellites like the International Space Station, so people near Port Hedland and Broome will have the best view of this rare sight.”

The spacecraft will swing back towards the Earth for another gravity assist in 2024, which will propel Lucy towards the Donaldjohanson asteroid – located within the Solar System’s main asteroid belt – in 2025.

Curtin’s Space Science and Technology Centre Director John Curtin Distinguished Professor Phil Bland is also on NASA’s Lucy Science Mission team and will be flying to the United States of America next month for the formal mission meeting.

Curtin’s Desert Fireball Network is a series of 52 autonomous stations across Australia that are designed to track meteorites as they enter the atmosphere and pinpoint their fall positions.

Vision of Curtin researchers filming the Lucy spacecraft as it passed over Broome on October 16 can be seen here: Lucy Flyby – Space Science and Technology Centre on site – YouTube

For more information about NASA’s Lucy mission, visit here.