NASA Troubleshoots Asteroid-Bound Lucy Spacecraft From Millions of Miles Away

Just after the successful launch of NASA’s Lucy spacecraft on October 16, 2021, a group of engineers huddled around a long conference table in Titusville, Florida. Lucy was just mere hours into its 12-year journey, but a major unexpected challenge had surfaced for the first-ever Trojan asteroids mission.

NASA Troubleshoots Asteroid-Bound Lucy Spacecraft From Millions of Miles Away

Data indicated that one of Lucy’s solar arrays — designed to unfurl like a hand fan — hadn’t fully opened and latched. Since the solar arrays power the spacecraft’s systems, the team had to figure out what to do next. To troubleshoot the problem, teams from NASA and Lucy mission partners quickly came together. Team members from Lockheed Martin’s Mission Support Area outside of Denver, who were in communication with the spacecraft directly, were on the phone. Although the conversation was quiet, it was intense. At one end of the room, an engineer sat with furrowed brow, folding and unfolding a paper plate in the same way that Lucy’s enormous circular solar arrays operate.

There were so many unanswered questions. What happened? Was the array open at all? Was there a way to fix it? Without a fully deployed array, would Lucy be able to safely perform the maneuvers needed to accomplish its science mission? Because Lucy was already speeding on its way through space, the stakes were incredibly high. Within hours, NASA pulled together Lucy’s anomaly response team, which included members from science mission lead Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Austin, Texas; mission operations lead NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; spacecraft builder Lockheed Martin; and Northrop Grumman in San Diego, solar array system designer and builder.

“This is a talented team, firmly committed to the success of Lucy,” said Donya Douglas-Bradshaw, former Lucy project manager from NASA Goddard. “They have the same grit and dedication that got us to a successful launch during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.” United in their pursuit to ensure Lucy would reach its fullest potential, the team began an exhaustive deep dive to determine the cause of the issue and develop the best path forward. Given that the spacecraft was otherwise perfectly healthy, the team wasn’t rushing into anything. “We have an incredibly talented team, but it was important to give them time to figure out what happened and how to move forward,” said Hal Levison, Lucy’s principal investigator from SwRI. “Fortunately, the spacecraft was where it was supposed to be, functioning nominally, and – most importantly

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