Cape Canaveral FL. A NASA spacecraft named Lucy rocketed into the sky with diamonds Saturday morning on a 12-year quest to locate eight asteroids.

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Seven mysterious space rocks are among a swarm of asteroids that share the orbit of Jupiter, believed to be ancient remnants of planetary formation.

An Atlas V rocket exploded before dawn, sending Lucy on a roundabout journey at a distance of about 6.3 billion kilometres. Researchers became emotional as they described the successful launch – lead scientist Hal Levison said it was like watching a baby born. “Go Lucy!” he urged.

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Lucy is named after the 3.2 million-year-old skeletal remains of a human ancestor found in Ethiopia nearly half a century ago. That discovery got its name from the 1967 Beatles song “Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds”, which prompted NASA to place the spacecraft on a plaque with the band members’ lyrics and words of wisdom from other publishers. The spacecraft also carried a lab-grown diamond disc for one of its science instruments.

In a pre-recorded video for NASA, Beatles drummer Ringo Starr paid tribute to his late collaborator John Lennon, credited with writing the song that inspired it all.

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“I’m so excited – Lucy is going back to the sky with the diamond. Johnny will love that,” Starr said. “Anyway, if you meet anyone there, Lucy, give them peace and love from me.”

Donald Johansson, the paleontologist behind the discovery of the fossil Lucy, laughed at Lucy soaring high – “I’ll never look at Jupiter the same way…absolutely mind-blowing.” He said he was filled with wonder about “this crossroads of our past, our present and our future”.

Johansson of Arizona State University traveled to Cape Canaveral for her first rocket launch, saying “that a human ancestor that lived a long time ago inspired a mission that promises to add valuable information about the formation of our solar system.” It does, incredibly exciting.”

Lucy’s US$981 million mission is the first target for Jupiter’s so-called Trojan entry: thousands – if not millions – of asteroids that share the gas giant’s orbit around the Sun. Some Trojan asteroids come before Jupiter in their orbit, while others follow it.

Despite their orbits, the Trojans are far from the planet and are mostly scattered far from each other. Lewison of the Southwest Research Institute, the mission’s lead scientist, said there is essentially zero chance of Lucy being caught one by one as it overtakes its targets.

Lucy will cross Earth next October and again in 2024 to gain enough gravitational oomph to orbit Jupiter. Along the way, the spacecraft will pass the asteroid Donaldjohansson between Mars and Jupiter. The aptly named reef will serve as a 2025 warm-up act for science instruments.

Drawing power from two giant circular solar plumes, Lucy will chase down five asteroids in the Trojan’s leading pack in late 2020. The spacecraft will then zoom back toward Earth for another gravity assist in 2030. This will send Lucy back to the Trojan Cluster behind, where it will overtake the last two targets for a record-setting eight asteroid strike in a single mission in 2033. .

It’s a complicated, winding path that Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s science mission chief, previously nodded. “You must be kidding. It’s possible?” He asked remembered.

Lucy will pass within 600 miles (965 kilometers of each target); The largest is about 70 miles (113 kilometres).

“What are the mountains? The valleys? The pits? The mesas? Who knows? I’m sure we’re going to be surprised,” said Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University, who is in charge of Lucy’s black-and-white camera. “But we can hardly wait to see … what the images will reveal about these fossils from the formation of the Solar System.”

NASA plans to launch another mission next month to test whether humans might be able to alter the asteroid’s orbit — an exercise if Earth ever does have a killer rock.

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The Associated Press Department of Health and Science receives support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. AP is solely responsible for all content.