Lucy's solar panel remains stuck as probe sets course toward eight ancient asteroids

Lucy, the spacecraft headed to study 8 ancient asteroids, is still making attempts to get its stuck solar panel out as it begins its journey deep into the solar system.

Lucy solar panels
Lucy's solar panel remains stuck as probe sets course toward eight ancient asteroids. (Photo: Nasa)

The first spacecraft to fly to eight ancient asteroids to study the evolution of the Solar System is still trying to get its stuck solar panel unlatched. The spacecraft encountered a major fault hours after launch when one of the solar panels remained partially unfurled as the probe began its course towards a faraway destination.

Nasa has in an update said that the team is still trying to get the unfurled panel fully out so as to provide additional power to the spacecraft. The team is in the process of a multi-stage effort to further deploy the spacecraft’s unlatched solar array and has commanded the spacecraft to operate the array’s deployment motor using both the primary and backup motor windings.

"The motor operated as expected, further reeling in the lanyard that pulls the solar array open. After running the motor for a series of short intervals to avoid overheating, the team paused to analyze the results," the Lucy team said in an update.

Data from the spacecraft showed that the deployment was proceeding similarly to engineering ground tests, allowing the team to move forward with the second stage of the attempt. The team also believes that there is still an additional lanyard to be retracted.

This time-lapsed animation shows the movements of the inner planets (Mercury, brown; Venus, white; Earth, blue; Mars, red), Jupiter (orange), and the two Trojan swarms (green) during the course of the Lucy mission. (Graphic: Astronomical Institute of CAS/Petr Scheirich (used with permission)

"Although this series of commands did not latch the solar array fully open, it did advance the deployment enough to increase the tension that stabilizes the arrays as was hoped," Nasa said. The solar panels are responsible for powering the spacecraft in its journey towards Jupiter's asteroid swarms.

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Meanwhile, the probe has completed a trajectory correction maneuver on June 7, the first in a series of maneuvers the spacecraft will take in preparation for the mission’s first Earth gravity assist scheduled for October 16.

An initial analysis had shown that the array is between 75 per cent and 95 per cent deployed. The team has tried the process on multiple occasions including two more attempts on May 26 and June 2.

The American space agency said that while there is no guarantee that additional attempts will latch the array, there is strong evidence that the process is putting the array under more tension, further stabilizing it. Even if the array does not ultimately latch, the additional stiffening may be enough to fly the mission as planned.

Lucy's first encounter will be in 2025 with the asteroid, Donaldjohanson, in the Main Belt, between Mars and Jupiter. The body is named for the discoverer of the Lucy fossil. Between 2027 and 2033, it will encounter seven Trojan asteroids -- five in the swarm that leads to Jupiter, and two in the swarm that trails the gas giant.