NASA’s Lucy spacecraft experiences problem with solar array shortly after launch


A researcher working on Lucy’s solar panels pre-launch.


NASA had reason to celebrate Saturday after launching Lucy, a spacecraft tasked with investigating the Trojan asteroids locked in Jupiter’s orbit. But Lucy appears to have encountered its first obstacle: One of the probe’s two solar arrays, which are powering Lucy’s exploration, may not properly be locked in place.

“Lucy’s two solar arrays have deployed, and both are producing power and the battery is charging,” NASA said Sunday in a blog post. “While one of the arrays has latched, indications are that the second array may not be fully latched.”

“In the current spacecraft attitude, Lucy can continue to operate with no threat to its health and safety. The team is analyzing spacecraft data to understand the situation and determine next steps to achieve full deployment of the solar array.”

Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s associate director for science, tweeted Sunday that he’s confident the array issue will be solved. 

“NASA’s Lucy mission is safe and stable,” he said. “The two solar arrays have deployed, but one may not be fully latched. The team is analyzing data to determine next steps. This team has overcome many challenges already and I am confident they will prevail here as well.”

The two solar arrays were folded when Lucy launched and were designed to unfurl like Chinese fans once the spacecraft reached space. The arrays were expected to take 20 minutes to fully unfurl, which the mission’s principal investigator said would “determine if the rest of the 12-year mission will be a success.” The solar panels were successfully deployed 91 minutes after launch. Now it’s just a matter of getting the second one to latch properly.

CNET reached out to the Lucy team for confirmation on how the unlatched arrays might affect performance and how the issue may be rectified but didn’t immediately hear back.

Lucy’s ultimate goal is to explore a set of asteroids that travel in Jupiter’s orbit and have never been studied up close before. These Trojan asteroids move as huge swarms, or camps, at the Lagrangian points in Jupiter’s orbit. Lagrangian points are regions where the push and pull of gravity from both Jupiter and the sun lock the camps in place, leading and trailing Jupiter in its journey around the sun in perpetuity.  

The collection of amorphous space rocks is like a series of cosmic fossils, providing a window into the earliest era of our solar system, some 4.6 billion years ago. Lucy will act as a cosmic paleontologist, flying past eight “fossils” at a distance and studying their surfaces with infrared imagers and cameras.   

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