NASA’s Lucy mission performed the first of three planned slingshot maneuvers around Earth this month to study Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, but the spacecraft made sure to snap some great photos of the Earth and Moon before retreating into deep space.
The images, taken on October 13 and 15 as Lucy began her approach to Earth for a gravity-assisted speed boost on Oct. 16, are more functional than a few simple snapshots. Images were taken to help calibrate LucyThe Terminal Tracking Camera (T2CAM) system, which includes two identical cameras that the spacecraft will use to locate and track the target asteroids as he speeds along.
The first image, taken on October 13, highlights the incredible distance between Earth and the moon. At the time, the two bodies sitting on opposite sides of the frame were about 890,000 miles (1.4 million kilometers) from Lucy, according to a NASA statement. Mission personnel also intended to have the spacecraft photograph the moon on its way back into deep space.
Related: NASA asteroid explorer Lucy spotted the moon disappearing during the lunar eclipse
The second photo, taken two days later, is a close-up of the Earth approaching Lucy, taken at a distance of approximately 380,000 miles (620,000 km). In the image, Hadar, Ethiopia is just visible on the leftmost edge of the planet, giving Lucy (and us) a cosmic glimpse of where the 3.2 million year old human ancestor fossil that gave the mission its name was discovered.
Lucy will complete three flybys of Earth in total, using Earth’s gravity as she approaches to accelerate herself so she can begin her years-long journey to JupiterTrojan asteroids. During the first flyby, Lucy approached just 220 miles (350 km) from the Earth’s surface – an altitude below the international space station and many satellites and close enough that keen-eyed skywatchers on the ground below could spot it.
Lucy will be the first spacecraft to visit Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, so named because they orbit the sun at the same distance as Jupiter, both ahead and behind the planet. They occupy two of Jupiter’s five Lagrange points, the only places where a stable orbit so close to the gas giant is possible.
During her 12-year mission, Lucy must fly by nine asteroids, including one in the main asteroid belt, to study their composition, density and diversity. While that’s a staggering number of asteroids to study at one go, there are up to 12,000 Trojan asteroids orbiting Jupiter, according to the International Astronomical Union. Scientists believe these rocks are 4 billion year old “fossils”, remnants of the formation of the solar system.
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