CAPE CANAVERAL, Fla. (AP) — A NASA spacecraft named Lucy rocketed into the sky with diamonds Saturday morning on a 12-year quest to explore eight asteroids.
Seven of the mysterious space rocks are among swarms of asteroids sharing Jupiter's orbit, thought to be the pristine leftovers of planetary formation.
An Atlas V rocket blasted off before dawn, sending Lucy on a roundabout journey spanning nearly 4 billion miles (6.3 billion kilometers). Researchers grew emotional describing the successful launch — lead scientist Hal Levison said it was like witnessing the birth of a child. “Go Lucy!” he urged.
Lucy is named after the 3.2 million-year-old skeletal remains of a human ancestor found in Ethiopia nearly a half-century ago. That discovery got its name from the 1967 Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds,” prompting NASA to send the spacecraft soaring with band members' lyrics and other luminaries’ words of wisdom imprinted on a plaque. The spacecraft also carried a disc made of lab-grown diamonds for one of its science instruments.
In a prerecorded video for NASA, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr paid tribute to his late colleague John Lennon, credited for writing the song that inspired all this.
“I'm so excited — Lucy is going back in the sky with diamonds. Johnny will love that,” Starr said. “Anyway, if you meet anyone up there, Lucy, give them peace and love from me.”
The paleoanthropologist behind the fossil Lucy discovery, Donald Johanson, had goose bumps watching Lucy soar — “I will never look at Jupiter the same ... absolutely mind-expanding.” He said he was filled with wonder about this “intersection of our past, our present and our future.”
“That a human ancestor who lived so long ago stimulated a mission which promises to add valuable information about the formation of our solar system is incredibly exciting,” said Johanson, of Arizona State University, who traveled to Cape Canaveral for his first rocket launch.
Lucy’s $981 million mission is the first to aim for Jupiter’s so-called Trojan entourage: thousands — if not millions — of asteroids that share the gas giant’s expansive orbit around the sun. Some of the Trojan asteroids precede Jupiter in its orbit, while others trail it.