NASA Team Troubleshoots Lucy Tied To An Asteroid Across The Solar System
After the successful launch of NASA’s Lucy spacecraft on October 16, 2021, a group of engineers gathered around a long conference table in Titusville, Florida. Lucy was just hours away from her 12-year flight, but an unexpected challenge had presented itself for the first-ever Trojan asteroid mission.
The data indicated that one of Lucy’s solar panels powering the spacecraft’s systems – designed to deploy like a hand-held fan – had not fully opened and locked, and the team was figuring out what to do next.
Teams from NASA and Lucy’s mission partners quickly came together to troubleshoot. On the phone, members of the Lockheed Martin Mission Support Area team outside Denver, who were in direct contact with the spacecraft.
The conversation was quiet, but intense. At one end of the room sat an engineer, frowning, folding and unfolding a paper plate the way Lucy’s huge circular solar panels work.
There were so many questions. What happened? Was the painting open at all? Was there a way to fix it? Would Lucy be able to safely perform the maneuvers necessary to accomplish her scientific mission without a fully deployed network?
With Lucy already speeding her way through space, the stakes were high.
Within hours, NASA assembled Lucy’s Anomaly Response Team, consisting of members of the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Austin, Texas; mission operations run NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland; spacecraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin; and Northrop Grumman in San Diego, designer and builder of solar panel systems.
“This is a talented team with a strong commitment to Lucy’s success,” said Donya Douglas-Bradshaw, former NASA Goddard Lucy Project Manager. “They have the same courage and dedication that allowed us to launch successfully during a once-in-a-lifetime pandemic.”
United in their quest to ensure Lucy reaches her full potential, the team began an exhaustive deep dive to determine the cause of the issue and develop the best path forward.
Since the spacecraft was otherwise perfectly healthy, the team wasn’t rushing into anything.
“We have an incredibly talented team, but it was important to give them time to figure out what happened and how to move forward,” said Hal Levison, Lucy’s principal investigator at SwRI. “Fortunately, the spacecraft was where it was supposed to be, functioning normally and, most importantly, safe. We had time.”
Staying focused through long days and nights, the team considered the options. To assess the configuration of Lucy’s solar panel in real time, the team fired thrusters at the spacecraft and collected data on how those forces vibrated the solar panel. Then they fed the data into a detailed model of the grating’s motor assembly to infer how stiff Lucy’s grating was, helping uncover the source of the problem.
Finally, they got closer to the root cause: A lanyard designed to open Lucy’s huge solar panel was probably wrapped around its coil-like coil.
After months of brainstorming and further testing, Lucy’s team settled on two potential paths.
In one, they would pull harder on the lanyard by running the array’s backup deployment engine at the same time as its main engine. The power from both motors should allow the stuck lanyard to retract further and engage the die locking mechanism. Although the two engines were never intended to run at the same time, the team used models to ensure the concept would work.
The second option: use the network as it was – almost fully deployed and generating more than 90% of its expected power.
“Each path had an element of risk to achieve the basic science goals,” said Barry Noakes, Lockheed Martin’s chief deep space exploration engineer. “A big part of our effort was to identify proactive actions that mitigate risk in both scenarios.”
The team mapped and tested the possible outcomes for both options. They analyzed hours of network test footage, built a ground replica of the network’s engine assembly, and tested the replica beyond its limits to better understand the risks of further deployment attempts. They also developed special high-fidelity software to simulate Lucy in space and assess the potential ripple effects an attempted redeployment could have on the spacecraft.
“The cooperation and teamwork with the mission partners has been phenomenal,” said Frank Bernas, vice president, space components and strategic business at Northrop Grumman.
After months of simulations and testing, NASA decided to go ahead with the first option – a multi-step attempt to completely redeploy the solar array. On seven occasions in May and June, the team commanded the spacecraft to operate the primary and backup solar array deployment motors simultaneously. The effort succeeded, pulling on the lanyard, and opening and stretching the transom further.
The mission now estimates that Lucy’s solar panel is open between 353 degrees and 357 degrees (out of 360 degrees in total for a fully extended panel). Although the array is not completely locked, it is under much more stress, making it stable enough for the spacecraft to operate as needed for mission operations.
The spacecraft is now ready and able to take the mission’s next big step – Earth gravity assist in October 2022. Lucy is expected to arrive at its first asteroid target in 2025.
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