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Niwot's Cathy Olkin sending Lucy to the sky


March 18, 2020

Emily Long

Planetary scientist Cathy Olkin next to a scale model of the Lucy space probe, which will launch in October 2021 as the first mission to study the Trojans asteroids near Jupiter. The real Lucy probe will be over 13 meters (45 feet) from tip to tip.

According to Cathy Olkin, a planetary scientist at Boulder's Southwest Research Institute (SwRI), "Probably you've never heard of Trojan asteroids. They don't really teach that in elementary school when you're learning about the planets."

Olkin, a Niwot local for the past 16 years, is dedicating much of her work to changing the knowledge base with respect to the Trojans. She is the deputy principal investigator of the NASA Lucy mission that is sending a space probe to the Trojans, which orbit the sun near Jupiter. The spacecraft launches in October 2021.

"It's largely a mission of exploration," said Olkin.

The Trojan asteroids are a diverse group of objects that we don't know very much about. The Lucy mission is going into our outer solar system to start piecing together more information.

"There are multiple theories about these objects," said Olkin. "There is a diversity in the population of these objects."

Their size ranges from 100km to as small as 20km, although the size estimates are imprecise with only visual observation from Earth so far.

Olkin added "They have different colors, they have different spectral types, which is telling us something about the composition of their surfaces. We want to understand what is the source of that diversity."

But you have to have a lot of patience to explore such distant objects.

While the mission launches in 2021, it won't reach its first target for several years. The entire mission from start to finish will take 12 years.

During that time, Lucy will visit seven of these diverse asteroids in two separate fly-bys, while using the Earth's gravity like a slingshot twice to propel it outward to Jupiter's orbit.

The Lucy mission is named after the Australopithecus fossil - the Lucy fossil of an ancient human ancestor that was discovered in Africa 1970. This name selection was very deliberate.

"The idea is that Australopithecus really transformed our understanding of human evolution in the same way the Lucy mission is striving to transform our understanding of solar system evolution," said Olkin.

The outer space Lucy mission is seeking to answer the question, "How did we get to be in the structure we are in the solar system?" The answer to this, in turn, will help us understand more about the Earth and how it evolved.

(By the way, no one seems to know how the asteroids earned the name "Trojans." One presumes there is no correlation with the brand name of a popular personal product.)

Olkin's path toward being a planetary scientist was not direct. She started studying pre-med in college, then switched to aerospace and went on to get a Masters in aerospace engineering. From there she went to work for the Jet Propulsion Laboratory as an engineer.

"I was enjoying the work doing navigation but I realized that what was really driving me was the scientific questions that were driving that mission," said Olkin. She switched fields and went back to school to earn a Ph.D. in planetary astronomy.

When asked what she thinks the Lucy mission will discover, Olkin said, "I think we'll be surprised, because every time we go to a new asteroid or planet in our solar system we're learning a lot and being surprised. I hope we're surprised. I would love to be surprised and learn something new."

Olkin concluded, "I can't predict what the answers will be, and that's why we have to go there and explore."


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