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NASA is looking at a problem with the Lucy solar array

Engineers are looking into why one of NASA’s Lucy spacecraft’s two solar panels failed to lock into position following the launch on October 16. While the spaceship is in good condition, NASA stated on October 17 that one of the 2 circular solar panels “may not have entirely attached” after deployment. The solar panels were released in the very first half-hour after detachment from the Atlas 5 rocket’s Centaur upper stage, which launched on October 16.

The spacecraft’s solar panels are both providing power, according to the ESA, and there were no other issues with the spacecraft. “Lucy may continue to operate in her current spacecraft attitude with no hazard to its health and safety,” NASA said in a statement. “The crew is studying data from the spacecraft to better understand the issue and determine next measures to complete the solar array deployment.”

“This team has previously overcome numerous challenges, and I am optimistic they will succeed here as well,” NASA Associate Administrator for Science Thomas Zurbuchen tweeted on October 17.

Lucy’s two solar panels have a diameter of 7.3 meters apiece. They were designed to unfold “like Chinese fans” when stored in a folded state, according to Joan Salute, who serves as the associate director in charge of the flight projects in NASA’s planetary science division, during a prelaunch briefing on October 14.

The solar cells in the arrays have a total area of 51 square meters. Because the spacecraft will be going out to Jupiter’s distance from the sun, where sunlight is just a fraction of what it is on Earth, an enormous area is required. At the October 14 briefing, Katie Oakman, who works as the Lucy structures and mechanisms leader at the Lockheed Martin Space, said, “This enables Lucy to fly further away from the sun than any previous solar-powered spacecraft to date.” Although the solar panels were developed by Northrop Grumman, Lockheed was the main contractor for Lucy.

Lucy’s panels can create 18 kilowatts of power in the area of the Earth. The arrays will produce just 500 watts of electricity when flying past the Trojan asteroids, which is the mission’s goal. This is still enough to operate the spaceship and its three major instruments.

She went on to say that there was no explicit design requirement for the circular arrays vs more traditional rectangular arrays, but that circular arrays provided the maximum area while fitting within the Atlas payload fairing’s limitations. “This design enables us to stow up close and snug adjacent to the spacecraft for launch,” she explained. “Any form other than this truly unique design wouldn’t allow us to reach to that 51-meter-squared active cell area while still fitting within the launch vehicle fairing,” says the designer.

It’s unclear whether the issue will hinder further efforts to inspect the spacecraft after launch. This includes the instrument pointing platform, which will be deployed roughly two days after launch and will house the three principal instruments.

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