This Sunday, a spacecraft called Lucy will be in the sky – just without diamonds.
NASA’s Lucy spacecraft will skirt Earth, coming within just a few hundred miles of us on its journey to the far-off Jupiter Trojan asteroids.
The spacecraft will pass 220 miles above Earth’s surface on Sunday morning, according to a news release from NASA.
And some lucky observers will be able to spot Lucy from Earth, says NASA.
The asteroid-hopping spacecraft will be visible from western Australia at around 6:55 AM EST. But it’ll pass out of view after a few minutes. At 7:26 AM EST, it should be visible in the western United States – assuming the skies are clear and sky-gazers have a decent pair of binoculars.
Coming so close to the Earth will require the spacecraft to navigate an area dense with satellites and debris. NASA is implementing special procedures to prevent Lucy from knocking into anything on its journey.
“The Lucy team has prepared two different maneuvers,” said Coralie Adam, the team chief for the Lucy deputy navigation team from KinetX Aerospace, in the release. “If the team detects that Lucy is at risk of colliding with a satellite or piece of debris, then – 12 hours before the closest approach to Earth – the spacecraft will execute one of these, altering the time of closest approach by either two or four seconds.
“This is a small correction, but it is enough to avoid a potentially catastrophic collision.”
The 12-year Lucy mission launched in October 2021. The mission’s goal is to explore the Trojan asteroid swarms that orbit Jupiter. The asteroids have never been directly observed before; the image above shows an illustration of Lucy approaching one of the asteroids. But if all goes according to plan, Lucy will provide the first high-resolution images of the asteroids.
The spacecraft will swing by Earth a total of three times during its mission. Coming into Earth’s orbit helps give Lucy a boost it needs to continue on its path.
“The last time we saw the spacecraft, it was being enclosed in the payload fairing in Florida,” said Hal Levison, principal investigator for Lucy at the Southwest Research Institute’s Boulder, Colorado office, referring to a protective nose cone used during launches. “It is exciting that we will be able to stand here in Colorado and see the spacecraft again.
“And this time Lucy will be in the sky.”