NASA has selected Tempe-based KinetX Aerospace to coordinate navigation and participate in the mission design team for the Lucyspacecraft expected to launch in October 2021. The spacecraft will make its first practice run by April 2025, and complete its mission around February 2034.
Named after the early hominid fossil “Lucy” discovered in Ethiopia in the 1970s, this Lucyis searching for fossils of a different type.
“NASA has an overall goal of trying to understand how the solar system was formed. To do that it is important to find objects that haven’t changed much,” said KinetX President and CEO Kjell Stakkestad. “The chance to see these objects up close, rather than looking at a Hubble telescope assessment from a distance, is super important to verify whether scientists have their theories correct.”
Stakkestad said drawing a roadmap for a space mission like Lucyis not trivial. He compared it to “a game of cosmic billiards.”
“It’s not like driving to the store, where you can start and stop. You have to try to take into account gravity, and try to slingshot around and line yourself up in the right time and place so you can head to the next body,” he said.
The bodies in question are asteroids know as “Trojans” which orbit the planet Jupiter. According to a fact sheet assembled by Lucy’s principle scientific investigator H.F. Levinson, the mission “will perform an exhaustive landmark investigation that visits six of these primitive asteroids,” and use “high-heritage remote sensing instruments to map the geology, surface color and composition, thermal and other physical properties of its targets at close range.”
Coming within a few kilometers of asteroids is complicated by the fact that their exact position is unknown, and that it takes around 30 minutes for a radio signal to travel between the spacecraft and the KinetX navigation team on earth. Stakkestad said that Lucymust have its flight path pre-programmed, and then it will adjust itself with sensors to avoid colliding with its targets or missing them completely.
The project budget overall is about $500 million. Arizona will probably get around $10 million to $15 million of that, according to Stakkestad. In addition to KinetX’s involvement, members of the science team are from both Arizona State University and the University of Arizona.
“Arizona has a remarkable capability for space work,” he said.
“What’s really interesting is that Lucy is a Discovery class mission, and two were selected this year. One is Lucyand one is called Psyche, and the principle investigator for Psyche is from ASU. There aren’t many states that can say they have two missions going like that.”
Stakkestad said that Lucywould add to KinetX’s growing wealth of deep-space experience and that would help win future NASA contracts. He sees a bright future for Arizona as a leader in space exploration, but that future is not without obstacles.
Although the aerospace industry provides high-paying jobs, “We can’t seem to get that knowledge out to the government to explain why they need to work hard with companies to grow that capability. Most states don’t have anything close to what Arizona has,” Stakkestad said.
He also said he sometimes has trouble recruiting talent to the state.
“I know were having this problem, and I’m sure other companies are, too. The education system here is so horrible, were 50th out of 50 states on what we spend on students,” he said. “When I try to entice people to come and work on exciting projects here, if they’re younger people with a young family, they are really hesitant to come.”
Despite the challenges, Stakkestad is optimistic about the future of KinetX.
“Lucygives us the ability to figure out complex technologies to solve problems, and that knowledge can be used for commercial space programs or sometimes other programs that aren’t necessarily in space. I look at winning these contracts as providing engineering experience so we can solve anyone’s problems,” he said.