NASA’s Lucy spacecraft is encountering problems with its solar panels. The spacecraft launched without issue on October 16th and successfully unfolded both of its solar panels. However, only one of its panels was properly locked into place.
Telemetry from NASA’s Deep Space Network indicates that Lucy as a whole is still secure, and its mission is not jeopardized. All of the other systems are operating normally. Nonetheless, NASA’s mission engineers are already on the case. NASA announced the issue in a brief blog post, stating that Lucy can continue to function with no harm to its health and safety in its present spacecraft position. The crew is studying spacecraft data to better understand the issue and identify the next steps to complete the solar array’s deployment.”
While the spacecraft is not in danger, restoring its panels to mission specifications is certainly preferable. The Earth circles at 1 AU, whereas the asteroid Lucy is scheduled to visit orbit at twice that distance or more. At 2 AU+, the spacecraft will get around 3% of the electricity it would receive if it were in Earth’s orbit around the sun.
Lucy’s mission is to visit 52246 Donaldjohnson, a main-belt asteroid named after the discoverer of the Lucy specimen. The mission will also visit a number of asteroids that orbit within the gravitational eddies around the Jupiter-Sun L4 and L5 points, known as the “Greek camp” and “Trojan camp,” respectively. These eddies exist because they are located at equal distances from the sun and Jupiter. While the Lagrange points do not have any gravitational force of their own, they are reasonably stable in relation to the two-body system. Because of inertia, circling things congregate there rather than being pulled off in another direction.
NASA has dealt with this sort of repair previously, they restored a broken and power-starved Skylab space station while it was in orbit by releasing a frozen hinge on its damaged solar array. Back in 2006, the organization successfully dealt with a jammed solar panel on the International Space Station. As a result, Lucy’s problem may be as simple as folding and unfolding the panels. However, because Skylab was in low-Earth orbit, we deployed personnel to repair it. We won’t have that option with Lucy, so perhaps the renowned brilliance of NASA’s earthbound engineers will come through, as it has so many times before.
Lucy’s research payload is powered by solar panels, thus the mission might be jeopardized if those instruments are unable to obtain electricity. However, the spacecraft’s journey to the asteroid belt is managed in a different way. The propulsion and course adjustments are handled by fourteen hydrazine thrusters manufactured by Aerojet Rocketdyne.
The objective of the probe is to visit the “fossils” of planet creation, and it was named after a fossilized skeleton of a hominin that revolutionized our view of human evolution. L’TES, a thermal emission spectrometer, and L’Ralph, a tool with a color camera and an infrared spectrometer, are among the scientific equipment on board the spacecraft. And, along with the black-and-white L’LORRI camera, Lucy carries a disc of pure, perfect lab-grown diamond for one of its instruments. While we found references to this information in many places, we couldn’t locate a description of which piece of equipment will use the diamond disc or how it will help the mission.