NASA’s Ralph to explore Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids in 2021


NASA’s Ralph, one of the most well-traveled scientific instrument, is set to explore Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids aboard the Lucy spacecraft in 2021, the US space agency said.

Ralph has made many discoveries since it first launched aboard the New Horizons spacecraft in 2006. Given a name and not an acronym, Ralph enables the study of the composition and atmospheres of celestial objects.

Ralph is a space instrument that has traveled as far as Pluto, while Lucy is a mission payload or the spacecraft which would be carrying various scientific instruments including Ralph to study the properties of the asteroids.

The mission will be launched in 2021 and would be the very first space mission to study the Trojans.

About Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids:

The Trojan asteroids are orbit Sun in two loose groups — one group is always ahead of Jupiter (called the Greek camp) in its path while the other is always behind (called the Trojan camp). The two clusters are stabilized at these two Lagrange points in a gravitational balancing act between the Sun and Jupiter.

As per the NASA, all of the Trojans are thought to be abundant in dark carbon compounds. Below an insulating blanket of dust, they are probably rich in water and other volatile substances.

The Trojan asteroids in Jupiter’s orbit could be made from the same material as the outer planets which were formed during the birth of the solar system more than 4 billion years ago.

What are Lagrange points?

Lagrange points are sweet spots in a planetary orbit where the pull of gravity working from two opposing celestial bodies is balanced due to the centripetal force of their orbits.

The name Lucy’ was taken from the name of the fossil of the earliest human ancestor yet discovered. Just like the finding of this skeleton had provided important insight into human evolution, scientists hope the Lucy mission will also be able to tell us more about our planetary origins.

The Lucy mission will comprise a 12-year journey with a fly-by to seven different asteroids — six Trojan asteroids and the Main Belt asteroid — more than any other previous asteroid mission. The mission will get us up-close with both the clusters of Trojan asteroids.

The Lucy mission payload will explore the Trojan asteroids using:

  • The Long Range Reconnaissance Imager (L’LORRI).
  • The Thermal Emission Spectrometer (L’TES).
  • L’Ralph.

L’LORRI will take high-definition photos of the Trojans, and L’TES will analyze the heat given off of the Trojans’ surface structures.

Ralph first launched aboard the New Horizons spacecraft in 2006 and obtained stunning flyby images of Jupiter and its moons. This was followed by a visit to Pluto where Ralph took the first high-definition pictures of the iconic minor planet.

The instrument will fly by another Kuiper Belt object called 2014 MU69 — nicknamed Ultima Thule — in January 2019. Ralph’s observations of 2014 MU69 will provide unique insights into this small, icy world.

Ralph enables the study of the composition and atmospheres of celestial objects.

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