NASA develops ingenious solution to fix its troubled ‘Lucy’ asteroid explorer

Last year, NASA launched the Lucy spacecraft, designed to explore the Trojan asteroids trapped near Jupiter’s Lagrange points. However, just 12 hours after launch, a problem arose – one of the large solar arrays, designed to generate power from an increasingly distant sun, had failed to fully deploy and lock into place. Now NASA has announced that a team was able to fix the problem enough for the mission to continue – thanks to several clever tricks.

Hours after the problem was first spotted, NASA assembled an anomaly response team consisting of members from the Southwest Research Institute, the director of the science mission, NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, and the spacecraft builder, Northrop Grumman, composed.

With no camera pointed at the solar arrays, the team had to find another way to find the problem. To do this, they fired the spacecraft’s thrusters to measure anomalous vibrations and created a detailed model of the array’s motor assembly to determine the array’s stiffness. They eventually found that a tape meant to open the array was probably tangled on its spool.

The team quickly refined two possible solutions. One was to just use the array as is because it was still producing 90 percent of the expected performance. The other was to try to pull the lanyard harder using both the backup trigger motor and the primary motor, which hopefully would allow it to wind further and activate the locking mechanism.

Both engines were never designed to work simultaneously, so the team modeled them to test possible outcomes and potential ripple effects. After months of simulations, they settled on the dual engine option. Running both the primary and backup solar deployment motors seven times simultaneously, they managed to open and tension the array further.

Unfortunately, it wasn’t tight enough to latch, but it’s now “under significantly more tension, making it stable enough for the spacecraft to operate as needed for mission operations,” NASA said. It is now “ready and able” to meet its next deadline of receiving a boost from Earth’s gravity in October 2022. It plans to reach its first asteroid target in 2025.

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