NASA’s spacecraft takes off on a complicated Excel-recorded path to Jupiter asteroids

NASA’s newest research probe launched over the weekend and began a 12-year journey to the Trojan asteroids of Jupiter.

A tool familiar to Wall Street was used to shape the complicated path of the mission: Microsoft Excel.

The Lucy spacecraft, which Lockheed Martin built and launched the United Launch Alliance’s Atlas V rocket for NASA on Saturday, is expected to travel 4 billion miles through space to fly past and study eight asteroids.

Years before Lucy took off, Brian Sutter, architect of the Lockheed Martin mission, used Excel to map the mission’s path and select which of the roughly 5,000 Trojan asteroids the spacecraft should visit.

“Part of the science of this mission was trying to investigate as many of these Trojans as possible in a single mission,” Sutter told CNBC.

While Lockheed Martin has a “high-fidelity” tool to calculate individual trajectories, Sutter said it would have taken “forever”. Instead, he resorted to an Excel macro that is “perfectly suited to sorting large amounts of data”.

“I had already found a trajectory that connected two of the asteroids with a trajectory that was also connected to Earth,” said Sutter.

Orbital propagation – or modeling the future position of objects in space – “is what I do,” Sutter explained. While his macro is made up of “different equations than you would normally type in Excel,” he emphasized that “at the end of the day, it’s all math”.

Sutter took a broad list of 750,000 asteroids and entered them into Excel to “see if they ever accidentally get any close”.

“I think this thing took about 12 hours to go through all 750,000 of them,” Sutter said. After running the macro, he had “a small list of 10 to 20 asteroids that the spacecraft would fly nearby”.

His use of Excel to track Lucy’s trajectory became famous with Lockheed Martin. He recalled a colleague once describing to another that Sutter made “the most ridiculous Excel spreadsheet I’ve ever seen in my life.”

The Lucy mission, with a total cost of $ 981 million, is scheduled to visit its first asteroid in 2024. Further fly-bys are expected to take place by 2033.

While the launch was successful and the spacecraft is stable, NASA said Sunday that one of the spacecraft’s two solar cells “may not be fully locked”.

“Lucy can continue working without endangering her health and safety,” said NASA. “The team is analyzing spacecraft data to understand the situation and determine the next steps to take to achieve full deployment of the solar array.”

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