NASA will launch two new missions to asteroids in search of clues about the early solar system, the space agency announced Wednesday.

The first mission, scheduled to launch in 2021, will send a probe to study the Trojan asteroids that swarm around Jupiter and are thought to be relics of the earliest days of the solar system. The project has been dubbed “Lucy,” in honor of the 3.2-million-year-old Australopithecus who is humanity’s most famous ancient relative.

The second, slated for 2023, will send an orbiter to 16 Psyche, a massive metallic object in the asteroid belt that is thought to be the exposed iron core of a protoplanet.

The missions are part of NASA’s Discovery Program, launched in 1992 to promote what then-NASA administrator Daniel Goldin called “better, faster, cheaper” solar system exploration. Discovery projects are shorter, more focused and smaller in scale than the average mission, and their costs are capped at around $500 million.

But they still do some pretty cool science. Mars Pathfinder – which successfully set the first rover to explore Mars – was a Discovery mission. So were MESSENGER, the first (and so far, only) orbital survey of Mercury; Dawn, which is studying the two biggest objects in the asteroid belt, Vesta and Ceres; and the Kepler Space Telescope, which has found thousand of exoplanets orbiting far-off stars, including nearly two dozen in the “habitable zone.”

“We’ve explored terrestrial planets, gas giants, and a range of other bodies orbiting the sun,” Jim Green, NASA’s planetary science director, said in a statement. “Lucy will observe primitive remnants from farther out in the solar system, while Psyche will directly observe the interior of a planetary body. These additional pieces of the puzzle will help us understand how the sun and its family of planets formed, changed over time, and became places where life could develop and be sustained – and what the future may hold.”


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