NASA has selected two robotic missions to visit asteroids in the early 2020s from a field of proposed interplanetary probes, approving projects to explore a metallic relic from the early solar system and a half-dozen so-called Trojan objects left over from the formation of the outer planets. The Lucy and Psyche spacecraft will join NASA’s line of cost-capped Discovery missions, a program under which the agency’s Mars Pathfinder rover, the Messenger mission to orbit Mercury, and the Dawn probe currently orbiting the dwarf planet Ceres were developed, built and launched. Picked from a slate of 28 proposals submitted to NASA in 2015, Lucy and Psyche will visit worlds never before seen close-up as scientists seek to sort out the violent early history of the solar system, in which proto-planets coalesced from mergers and collisions between rocks and boulders in a disk around the sun. Lucy will launch in October 2021 on a preliminary trajectory to escape the bonds of Earth’s gravity, then return for flybys to use the planet’s gravity to slingshot toward the mission’s targets in the asteroid belt and beyond. The probe’s first destination in April 2025 will be the asteroid DonaldJohanson, named for the paleoanthropologist who discovered
NASA’s Dawn spacecraft has continued its survey of the dwarf planet Ceres this year, discovering rock-bound ice hidden just beneath the airless world’s rugged surface and a handful of icy outcrops inside craters in the northern hemisphere, raising hopes that Ceres could have once held a buried habitable ocean of liquid water.
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