12-Year Asteroid Mission Begins This Weekend

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(Newser)

Attention asteroid aficionados: NASA is set to launch a series of spacecraft to visit and even bash some of the solar system’s most enticing space rocks. A robotic trailblazer named Lucy is up first, blasting off this weekend on a 12-year cruise to swarms of asteroids near Jupiter—unexplored time capsules from the dawn of the solar system, per the AP. The $981 million mission, the first to Jupiter’s so-called Trojan entourage, is targeting an unprecedented eight asteroids. Liftoff is scheduled for Saturday. Others on deck:

  • Barely a month after Lucy’s launch, an impactor spacecraft named Dart will give chase to a double-asteroid closer to home. The mission will end with Dart ramming the main asteroid’s moonlet to change its orbit, a test that could one day save Earth from an incoming rock.
  • Next summer, a spacecraft will launch to a rare metal world—a nickel and iron asteroid that might be the exposed core of a once-upon-a-time planet. A pair of smaller companion craft—the size of suitcases—will peel away to another set of double asteroids.
  • And in 2023, a space capsule will parachute into the Utah desert with NASA’s first samples of an asteroid, collected last year by the excavating robot Osiris-Rex. The samples are from Bennu, a rubble and boulder-strewn rock that could endanger Earth a couple centuries from now.
  • More on the missions here.

(Read more space exploration stories.)

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