The Lucy mission has just received yet another asteroid on its “target” list. NASA announced that the probe will approach (152830) 1999 VD57, a small rock located in the asteroid belt, to test its navigation and monitoring systems.
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Asteroid 1999 VD57 has not been identified before because it is extremely small: it is only 700 meters in diameter and will be the smallest object in the Belt to be visited by a space probe.
Originally, Lucy would not approach any asteroid until 2025, but the 1999 VD57 flyby was proposed after the mission team realized that by incorporating a small maneuver into the trajectory, Sinda could get even closer to this asteroid. So they decided to add the “little stop” as a test of the spacecraft’s thermal monitoring system, which allows it to monitor the asteroid automatically during the encounter.
This was one of the biggest difficulties of flyby missions, since, while a spacecraft approaches the desired object, it is difficult to determine the exact distance from the rock and the direction to point the cameras at it. “This new system will allow the team to take many more pictures of the target,” said Hal Levison, the mission’s principal investigator.
Fortunately, the 1999 VD57 appeared to be an ideal candidate for validation of the procedure. “It really stood out: Lucy’s trajectory, as originally designed, will take it within 640,000 km of the asteroid, at least three times closer than the next closest asteroid,” noted Raphael Marschall, mission collaborator who identified the rock.
The angle of approach of the spacecraft to the asteroid in relation to the Sun is very similar to that planned for encounters with the Trojan asteroids, those space rocks that orbit the Sun following Jupiter and that are the main target of the Lucy mission. This will give the mission team the opportunity to “test out” the procedure under similar conditions well before Lucy arrives at her science targets in a few years.