Lucy Asteroid Mission Moves Toward 2021 Launch

Southwest Research Institute is leading NASA’s Lucy mission, which will launch in 2021 for the first reconnaissance of the Trojans, a population of primitive asteroids orbiting in tandem with Jupiter. In this artist’s concept (not to scale), the Lucy spacecraft is flying by Eurybates, one of the six diverse and scientifically important Trojans to be studied. (Credit: SwRI)

The first mission to explore Trojan asteroids that orbit in tandem with Jupiter is moving forward toward a late 2021 launch date using heritage hardware that has already been tested in space, according to a Government Accountability Office (GAO) assessment.

“Project officials characterize the Lucy design as low risk because it does not require development of any critical technologies and has a high heritage design,” the GAO found. “For example, these officials stated that Lucy’s design has the same architecture as prior NASA projects such as Juno and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN).

“The project plans to fly three instruments—a thermal spectrometer, a reconnaissance imager, and an imaging spectrometer—that are not exact replicas of previously flown versions but leverage heritage hardware,” the assessment added.

Scheduled for launch in October or November 2021, Lucy will have a “rehearsal flyby” of a main-belt asteroid in 2025 to test its instruments. The spacecraft will then fly by six Trojan asteroids over the next eight years.

“The project aims to understand the formation and evolution of planetary systems by conducting flybys of these remnants of giant planet formation….The mission’s planned measurements include asteroid surface color and composition, interior composition, and surface geology,” the report said.

One concern for project, which is being led by the Southwest Research Institute, involves the 6-meter long solar arrays, which are larger than the project’s contractor typically builds.

“Because the contractor has not flown an array of this size, officials said they anticipate being more involved in this procurement, but there are no technical issues at this point,” the assessment read.

NASA has pegged the project’s cost as between $914 million and $984 million.

“The project plans to hold its preliminary design review in September 2018 and its confirmation review in December 2018, at which point it will establish its cost and schedule baseline,” the report stated.

The project is evaluating whether to launch Lucy on an ULA Atlas V or a SpaceX Falcon Heavy. The program expects to make a decision at the time of the preliminary design review in September.

The GAO’s assessment of the Lucy mission is below.

NASA: Assessments of Major Projects
Government Accountability Office
May 1, 2018
Full Report

Lucy

Lucy will be the first mission to investigate the Trojans, which are a population of never-explored asteroids orbiting in tandem with Jupiter. The project aims to understand the formation and evolution of planetary systems by conducting flybys of these remnants of giant planet formation. The Lucy spacecraft will first encounter a main belt asteroid—located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter—and then will travel to the outer solar system where the spacecraft will encounter six Trojans over an 11-year mission. The mission’s planned measurements include asteroid surface color and composition, interior composition, and surface geology.

Project Information

NASA Lead Center: Goddard Space Flight Center
International Partner: None
Launch Location: Kennedy Space Center, FL
Launch Vehicle: TBD
Mission Duration: 11.6 years
Requirement Derived from: Discovery Program Announcement of Opportunity 2014
Budget Portfolio: Science, Planetary Science

Project Summary

In December 2016, Lucy was one of two projects selected by the Discovery program—a series of competed missions that have focused investigations and short development periods—to proceed to preliminary design and technology completion phase. Lucy is expected to have its rehearsal flyby of a main belt asteroid in 2025, and then fly by Trojan asteroids over the course of the next 8 years.

Project officials stated that the design is based heavily on heritage hardware and does not require development of any critical technologies. The project is evaluating the extent to which risks are posed by existing hardware. For example, the project is tracking a risk related to the size of the solar array, which is larger than what the contractor typically builds.

The project also implemented a trade on its spacecraft to address the risk of on-orbit failure from a heritage engine. Additionally, the project and NASA Launch Services have identified two launch vehicle options, but the project does not expect NASA to select a vehicle before its preliminary design review in September 2018.

Cost and Schedule Status

Credit: GAO

In December 2016, Lucy was one of two projects selected by the Discovery program—a series of competed missions that have focused scientific investigations and short development periods—to proceed to the preliminary design and technology completion phase. At that same time, the project established preliminary cost and schedule estimates.

The project’s planned launch window is October-November 2021. Under that planned launch date, Lucy is expected to have its rehearsal flyby–a main belt asteroid encounter that will allow the project to test instruments—in 2025 and then fly by Trojan asteroids over the course of the next 8 years. If the project misses that launch date, another launch window opens in 2022.

Credit: GAO

The project’s preliminary cost range is $914 million to $984 million, and the project is currently holding cost and schedule reserves consistent with the level required by NASA center policy. The project plans to hold its preliminary design review in September 2018 and its confirmation review in December 2018, at which point it will establish its cost and schedule baseline.

Technology and Design

Project officials characterize the Lucy design as low risk because it does not require development of any critical technologies and has a high heritage design. For example, these officials stated that Lucy’s design has the same architecture as prior NASA projects such as Juno and the Mars Atmosphere and Volatile Evolution Mission (MAVEN). The project plans to fly three instruments—a thermal spectrometer, a reconnaissance imager, and an imaging spectrometer—that are not exact replicas of previously flown versions but leverage heritage hardware.

The Lucy project reports that its one heritage technology—an ultraflex solar array—is mature, but the project plans to use the technology in a different environment than previously demonstrated as well as make modifications that affect form, fit, and function. We have previously asserted that mature, heritage technologies must be demonstrated in a relevant environment and should be very close to form, fit, and function.

The project is tracking a risk related to the size of the solar array since, at approximately 6 meters, it is larger than what the contractor typically builds. Because the contractor has not flown an array of this size, officials said they anticipate being more involved in this procurement, but there are no technical issues at this point.

According to officials, the Lucy spacecraft’s proposed main engine was the same model used on a series of environmental satellites that have had engine performance problems. The engine has failed in flight more than once and was a single point failure for the Lucy project. As a result, the project completed an engine trade study in July 2017 and decided to select a different engine.

Launch

In coordination with NASA Launch Services at Kennedy Space Center, project officials identified the Atlas V and Falcon Heavy as vehicles that meet mission requirements. However, as of January 2018, the Falcon Heavy had not flown, so launch environment data was not yet available to the project.

Project officials are tracking a risk that it could be necessary to rework hardware due to the Falcon Heavy launch environment. However, the project has assessed the cost impact of this scenario should the Falcon Heavy be selected. Officials said they do not expect NASA to select a launch vehicle prior to the project’s planned September 2018 preliminary design review, the point at which projects prefer to select a launch vehicle. Until then, the project is designing to a mix of the two potential launch vehicles’ requirements.

Project Office Comments

Lucy project officials provided technical comments on a draft of this assessment, which were incorporated as appropriate.

  • therealdmt

    Nice to see them trying to move up the launch dates for this and Psyche — I’m not gonna be such a kid any more by the time this guy finishes its mission in the 2030s!

  • Michael Halpern

    I am betting on FH, it’s a discovery class mission, meaning tighter budget constraints, plus depending on configuration, FH will get it there faster than Atlas V can hope to