By Halimah Yahya , CNN Written by
It’s not an easy piece of engineering to build.
Lucy is a robot made of 3D-printed silicon, polymer and a metallic core — and it’s been tasked with driving herself around a pair of asteroid like bodies, an endeavor that promises to reveal more about our early ancestors’ habit of venturing out into space.
The project, which launches into space aboard the SpaceX Falcon 9 rocket on Monday evening, is part of NASA’s Virtual Planetary Laboratory (VPL), which uses simulated environments to create simulated planetary missions, allowing experts to study how new astronauts might respond.
To make Lucy, the engineering team at Cornell University took input from a group of comparative anthropologists and posed a question to them: “Would you like to learn more about humans and our distant ancestors by driving around on a spacecraft and exploring an asteroid like terrain?”
These “Trojan asteroids” have been found in the last few years, mostly by NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission, which is due to reach the asteroid Bennu in December, 2015.
Directly below OSIRIS-REx, they have found small, rock-hard bodies; sharp ropes, clearly laid down by early humans. This shows that our forebears were moving around an asteroid by driving vehicles, rather than simply gathering and conducting a single primitive sample.
NASA’s Lucy in space
“The Trojan asteroids provide an amazing window into how early humans drove and explored an asteroid,” said Michael Meyer, NASA’s chief scientist, in a press release. “Trojan asteroids are very primitive and will open a window on what our early ancestors did and how they evolved.
“Lucy will not only investigate the surface of an asteroid, but also examine the chemistry and mineralogy of the mineral specimens within it. I’m looking forward to seeing what she will discover.”
Initial test versions of Lucy — built by the University of Washington’s Applied Physics Laboratory — were published in a paper in the journal Science in October 2014, and were chosen to demonstrate the idea of a robotic vehicle for planetary exploration.
Previous concepts, like the Japanese Kibo 1B team’s Volkeur bot, and the German Mars rover DIKTV, were also submitted to the VPL for evaluation, but Lucy went straight to the front line for the missions.
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It had been a long process, not just to get Lucy on board, but to get an actual functioning miniature of the robot built, successfully laying down a battery and components on a metallic skeleton that could be managed by the three-axis steering.
A pilot program for Lucy, which held space vehicle experiments in Hawaii during 2016, continued to do so with those operations, and a later module built was tested in California.
Lucy in space
The Lucy mission to Gemini 3 consists of two flights: a 22-day one-time orbit, and a two-month follow-up, and is scheduled to reach Gemini 3 on Monday, August 21.
The mission: to drive Lucy around the joint between Mars (M3) and Jupiter (M4) and collect samples there and send them back home.
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As a demo of what scientists can hope to learn from Lucy’s mission, documents show that they’ll be taking samples of minerals, water, hydrogen and carbon — these bodies were thought to have the potential to preserve many clues about the early history of our planet.
Lucy’s planned scientific discoveries
(Excerpts retrieved from press release, published online 13-28-2012.)
Terrestrial rocks, from Mars’ surface, will be collected and chemically analyzed; water will be extracted and ultimately be boiled down in a volcano for later cooling and purification. The melting process will reveal the composition of these precious minerals: sulfate, magnesium, copper, silica, zinc, and iron. The isotopic signatures of water can be studied to help determine why different meteorites are from different planets.
Rock samples collected from M3 and analyzed, will yield the ingredients necessary to build cooking stoves. These plants and stoves may also point to the emergence of or early cultivation of Earth and other planets.
As for the lunar rocks gathered from M4, those will be liquefied and filtered through a wide array of chemicals including hydrogen peroxide, boron, ammonium, argon, acetone, and a variety of acids and volatile compounds used in the petrochemical industry.
When recombined, and converted to a liquid, the basic compounds will be used to construct even larger gas batteries and other energy producing facilities. The selected electronic energy production devices could act as mini power plants on the moon itself.