What to Know About NASA’s Unprecedented Psyche Mission to a Metallic Asteroid

What to Know About NASA’s Unprecedented Psyche Mission to a Metallic Asteroid

Wedged between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, the main asteroid belt contains over 1 million rocky objects, but perhaps few of them are as intriguing as Psyche. The metal-rich asteroid might have once been an ancient planetary building block that was stripped of its outer rocky shell as our solar system came to be. What remains of Psyche may hold the answers as to how Earth and its neighboring planets were formed, and a namesake mission is on the case to probe the asteroid for clues.

NASA is getting ready to launch its Psyche spacecraft to rendezvous with the main belt asteroid in an effort to uncover the origin story of Earth. Previous asteroid-probing missions have explored space rocks made of rock or ice, so this is scientists’ first chance to get up close with a metal-rich asteroid which could suggest a different narrative for the formation of the solar system.

Here’s what you need to know about the mission.

When is Psyche launching?

The Psyche mission is set for launch on October 12 at 10:16 a.m. ET.

The spacecraft will liftoff on board a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida.

A week before its original launch date on October 5, engineers discovered an issue with the Psyche spacecraft’s thrusters that could have caused it to overheat during its eight-year mission. As a result, the mission’s liftoff date was delayed by one week as the team resolved the issue.

How long will it take Psyche to reach the asteroid?

Psyche will travel around 2.2 billion miles to reach the main asteroid belt. If all goes well, the spacecraft will enter asteroid Psyche’s orbit in late July 2029 and begin its mission in August of the same year.

It will spend about two years orbiting the asteroid to take pictures, map the surface, and collect data in order to determine Psyche’s composition.

What’s so special about the Psyche asteroid?

Psyche is a 173-mile-wide (280-kilometer-wide) asteroid that orbits the Sun in the outer part of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It was discovered in 1852 and named after the Greek goddess of the soul.

This odd-looking, potato-like space rock might be an exposed core of a planetesimal, or an early planetary building block. Psyche may have been stripped of its outer layer due to violent collisions that took place during the early formation of the solar system.

Since we can’t drill our way to Earth’s core, visiting the Psyche asteroid is the next best thing as it offers scientists a rare look at the center of our planet and other rocky planets like it. It could also hold clues to the violent history of our solar system, and how planets like our own came to be in the midst of the chaos.

Analysis of radar observations of the asteroid indicates that Psyche is likely made of a mixture of rock and metal, with metal composing 30% to 60% of its volume, according to NASA.

How will NASA examine the Psyche asteroid?

The Psyche spacecraft is about the size of a small van. It’s packed with a magnetometer, a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer, and a multispectral imager to study the asteroid.

Based on data obtained by Earth-based radar and optical telescopes, Psyche appears to have two large craters, as well as significant variation in its metal content and color across the asteroid’s surface, according to NASA. Observing the asteroid up close will allow us to confirm Psyche’s battle scars and offer more insight into its origin. The mission expects to receive its first images around two months after launch.

The spacecraft’s magnetometer will look for evidence of an ancient magnetic field, which would support the theory that Psyche is the leftover core of a planetary body. The gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer will help determine the chemical elements that make up the asteroid, while the multispectral imager will provide information about the mineral composition of Psyche.

Psyche’s controversial road to launch

The Psyche mission cost an estimated $US1.2 billion, SpaceNews reported earlier in September. The probe was originally supposed to launch in 2022, but NASA delayed it due to issues with the spacecraft’s flight software and testing equipment that could not be resolved in time for liftoff. The mission had to wait a year for the next launch window that would place it on a trajectory towards the asteroid.

In October 2022, NASA announced that Psyche was back on track for launch after an internal review that looked into staffing and communication issues that contributed to its delay.

Another mission, however, suffered the consequences. NASA’s long-awaited VERITAS (Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy) mission to Venus was delayed indefinitely as the space agency reallocated its resources elsewhere.

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