How engineers fixed the problem with the Lucy spacecraft’s solar array.


NASA’s Lucy spacecraft got off to a rocky start on its mission, with a deployment issue affecting its solar power system, but fortunately, engineers were able to resolve the issue. Now, NASA has shared more information about how members of the Lucy team worked to fix and fix the problem from Earth, and the craft raced through space.

Lucy’s solar journey continues

Lucy was launched in October 2021 with two circular solar arrays stacked to fit inside the rocket’s fairing. Once in space shortly after launch, Lucy was to deploy two arrays to collect solar energy that would power the craft on its long journey to the Jupiter-orbiting Trojan asteroids. One array was deployed as expected, but the other was not fully deployed. The solutions were supposed to unfold like the hands of a clock and lock in place, but one only unfolded halfway and did not lock.

The good news was that the ship was generating enough power to sustain itself even with the array partially deployed. However, unless the system was locked in place, it was not tensioned, making it wobbly, and there were concerns that the forces of future maneuvering could shake or damage the system. Lucy’s team, made up of engineers and scientists from NASA, Lockheed Martian, Northrop Grumman and the Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), set to work to find out what they could do.

“We have an incredibly talented team, but it was important to give them time to understand what happened and how to move forward,” said Hal Levison, Lucy’s principal investigator at SwRI, in statement. “Fortunately, the spacecraft was where it was supposed to be, functioning as it should and, most importantly, safe. We had time.”

The team discovered that the problem was caused by a string that was pulled by a motor to pull the array into a circular shape. It seemed that something caught the string and prevented the array from opening completely. They were faced with a choice: leave the ship as it was, currently healthy but at potential risk of future problems, or use the extra power from the standby engine to pull harder on a string.

“Each path involved an element of risk to achieve basic science goals,” said Barry Knox, Lockheed Martin’s chief engineer for deep space exploration. “A big part of our effort has been to identify proactive actions that reduce risk in any case.”

After modeling the risks of each option using test footage and a replica of the ship here on Earth, the team decided to try to fix the problem. It was necessary several sessions tweaking and tugging during May and June of this year, but in the end, the array was there almost fully deployed. It’s still not locked in place, but it has rotated between 353 and 357 degrees in 360 degrees, which is stable enough for the craft to carry out its mission.

Lucy now continues her long journey, scheduled to arrive at the Trojans in 2027.

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How engineers fixed the problem with the Lucy spacecraft’s solar array.

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