The Lucy spacecraft captured this image of Earth on October 15. Image: NASA
NASA’s Lucy spacecraft got its first view of the Earth-Moon system one year after launching from its home planet to explore a distant swarm of asteroids. The spacecraft captured beautiful, and somewhat daunting, images of Earth and its natural satellite as it whizzed past for a gravitational assist.
The Lucy spacecraft is currently on a six-year journey to Jupiter to study the Trojan asteroids, two groups of rocky bodies that lead and follow Jupiter as it orbits the Sun.
As part of its convoluted journey, Lucy flew by Earth on October 15 for the first of three gravity assist maneuvers to place the spacecraft on a new trajectory beyond the orbit of Mars. During its flyby, Lucy took a few photos of Earth and the Moon to calibrate the spacecraft’s instruments. NASA released the images this week—and they’re really great, if not a bit goosebump-inducing. What’s more, they’re a sneak preview into the capabilities of the spacecraft and the kinds of views can expect of the Trojan asteroids.
The first image was taken on October 13, when Lucy was 890,000 miles (1.4 million kilometers) away from Earth. The spacecraft was still making its way towards our planet for the close flyby and was able to capture the Earth-Moon system in the same frame.
The Moon can be seen very faintly along the left side of the image, separated from its host planet by about 238,900 miles (384,400 kilometers). This view of the distant pair defies our perception of the Moon that we see in our night skies, which appears relatively close to us. Instead, the image reveals how far the Moon really is from Earth, and the eerie darkness of space between them.
As Lucy got closer to Earth, it captured this closer look at the planet on October 15 at a distance of 385,000 miles (620,000 kilometers). This view of the Earth shows Hadar, Ethiopia—the place of origin for the 3.2 million-year-old hominid fossil that the spacecraft was named after.
The Lucy fossils provided valuable insights into human evolution, the same way the Trojan asteroids could help scientists piece together the origin story of the early solar system and how it evolved over time.
Roughly eight hours after it flew past Earth, Lucy got snugly with the Moon. The spacecraft captured this closeup image of the lunar surface on October 16 at a distance of around 140,000 miles (230,000 km) from the surface.
The image, taken with Lucy’s L’LORRI (Lucy LOng Range Reconnaissance Imager) high-resolution greyscale camera, was put together by combining ten separate two millisecond exposures of the same frame to increase its quality, with each pixel representing about 0.8 miles (1.3 kilometers).
This mosaic of the Moon was created from five separate one millisecond exposures, with each pixel representing about 0.7 miles (1.2 kilometers). The uppermost area of the image was taken at an earlier time than the bottom, resulting in the incongruous view of this lunar area. The image was taken about eight hours after Lucy’s flyby of Earth, when the spacecraft was around 140,000 miles (230,000 km) away from the Moon.
In another closeup image of the Moon, Lucy observed the side of the lunar surface most familiar to us on Earth. Flying between the Earth and Moon, the spacecraft captured the lava-filled impact basin Mare Imbrium. The lower-right area of the image shows the Apennine mountain range—the landing site for the Apollo 15 mission in 1971.
After Lucy bid farewell to Earth, its new trajectory placed it on a two-year orbit around the Sun. In two years, Lucy will return to Earth for yet another gravity assist. From there, the spacecraft will still have about three years to go before reaching its first target, asteroid Donaldjohanson. Later in August 2027, Lucy will begin its Trojan tour by visiting Eurybates and its binary partner Queta, followed by Polymele and its binary partner, Leucus, Orus, and the binary pair Patroclus and Menoetius.
More: Astronomers Chase Shadows From Jupiter’s Mysterious Trojan Asteroids