A team of NASA scientists are troubleshooting the glitch in asteroid hunter Lucy spacecraft, which is millions of miles away from Earth. Here’s what happened.
NASA launched its Lucy spacecraft on Oct. 16, 2021 from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida. This was NASA’s first space mission to study the Trojans, a group of asteroids which orbit the Sun in two groups, according to NASA.
However, within hours of launch, the spacecraft encountered trouble when one of Lucy’s solar arrays powering the spacecraft’s systems, which was designed to unfurl like a hand fan, hadn’t fully opened and latched. This left the scientists scrambling about the next steps. This error could have jeopardized the entire mission, resulting in a potential complete failure. As the spacecraft had already launched and was making its way to the asteroid belt, scientists could not do a physical checkup of the spacecraft.
The spacecraft was designed in collaboration with Lockheed Martin and therefore, NASA contacted the experts at Lockheed Martin’s Mission Support Area outside of Denver who were in direct contact with the spacecraft.
NASA called together the anomaly response team for the mission. The team consisted of members from science mission lead Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), mission operations lead NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, spacecraft builder Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman, solar array system designer and builder.
After days of troubleshooting which involved firing thrusters to vibrate solar arrays and feeding the subsequent data into the system, they finally settled upon a cause behind the failure. A lanyard designed to pull according to Lucy’s massive solar array open was likely snarled on its bobbin-like spool, to NASA.
2 solutions for the problem were drawn up. First would involve pulling harder on both motors of the lanyard which could free up the array and the second involved leaving it the way it was. After days of tests and simulations, the team settled upon the first option.
NASA said that on seven occasions in May and June, 2022 the team commanded the spacecraft to simultaneously run the primary and backup solar array deployment motors.
The move was successful and the solar array is back in the position it was initially determined to be and the spacecraft is ready for its next big maneuver, an Earth-gravity assist in October 2022 before reaching its first trojan asteroid in 2025.