NASA Targets 'Bizarre' Time Capsule Trojan Asteroids With Lucy Mission

On October 16, NASA is set to launch its latest mission into the depths of the solar system in order to study a mysterious collection of asteroids.

The project, called Lucy, will be the first mission to study the Trojan asteroids, described by NASA as "time capsules" from over 4 billion years ago.

The 12-year mission will also be unique in that no other spacecraft has ever been to as many different orbiting bodies as Lucy will.

Altogether the Lucy probe will visit eight different asteroids—seven of which are Trojans—in order to find out as much as it can about what clues these ancient space rocks might hold about our solar system's origin.

And the asteroids are a bit of an oddity, according to NASA.

The Trojans were first discovered in 1906 by German astrophotographer Max Wolf.

That year, Wolf spotted an asteroid that had an unusual orbit. It seemed to be moving in front of Jupiter, as though it was locked in the planet's orbit around the sun.

Several months later one of Wolf's students, August Kopff, realized that as Jupiter was following this asteroid around its own orbit, it was also being trailed by another; Jupiter was caught in a sandwich of asteroids, and NASA said their orbits would have been "bizarre" at the time.

Yet the phenomenon of asteroids surrounding a planet is not unheard of. In fact, it was predicted mathematically even before the Trojans were discovered—but it hadn't been observed until then.

The orbit of the Trojans is due something called Lagrange points. Essentially, every planet orbiting the sun has two Lagrange points: one behind it, and one in front.

An asteroid that is caught in this point receives a sort of balancing force from the sun and the planet. This prevents it from wandering off, and will stay put in its Lagrange point.

For NASA, this means not having to chase down asteroids that are roaming freely. It also means they've been in their positions for a while, and are assumed to have formed in their current orbits at the same time as Jupiter first emerged.

"To have a population of somewhat undisturbed remnants of the original planetary disc and to have it as accessible as going to five astronomical units [distance] as opposed to going to 45 astronomical units—that's what we're trying to get at," Keith Noll, project scientist for Lucy, told The Planetary Society.

"These primitive bodies hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system," NASA said in a press release.

Finding out how the solar system ended up emerging in the first place is one of the key reasons scientists observe asteroids and comets in the first place.

Earlier this year scientists revealed details about the comet 46P/Wirtanen, which released an unusual amount of alcohol as it made a flyby past Earth back in 2018.

A scientist involved in the study said the methanol present in the comet told researchers about how elements such as carbon, oxygen, and hydrogen were distributed in the early solar system.

Asteroids
A stock photo shows asteroids moving through space. The Trojan asteroids are caught in an orbit with Jupiter. Dottedhippo/Getty