NASA Heads For 'Psyche', A Giant Mysterious Metallic Asteroid That Could Be A Dead Planet's Heart

 forbes.com  06/12/2019 07:36:31 

This artist's concept illustration depicts the spacecraft of NASA's Psyche mission near the mission's target, the metal asteroid Psyche.

NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin

NASA is preparing to explore a world made of metal. Confirming that the exciting Arizona State University-led Psyche mission is now entering the build phase, NASAs probe is now set to visit a mysterious asteroid between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It could be nothing less than the exposed core of a dead planet.

Illustration of a depression on Psyche. The topography has been color coded to show the dynamic elevation; values > 0 km are saturated in pink to emphasize the depressions.

Shepard et al., 2017

What is asteroid Psyche?

While most asteroids are rocky or icy bodies, Psyche is thought to be a stripped planetary core, a very rare object in the solar system. While NASA missions like InSight drill into Mars to discover the origins of planets, Psyche offers an opportunity to inspect and study a planetary core up close. It appears to be the exposed iron-nickel core (just like Earths) of a proto-planet, a small world that formed early in the solar system's history, but never reached planetary size & much like Vesta and Ceres, which NASA's Dawn spacecraft explored. Could asteroid Psyche be the heart of an early planet as big as Mars that lost its rocky outer layers? Was it involved in violent collisions? NASA will help planetary scientists find out, and so tease-out lessons for how the solar systems planets likely formed.

A #PsycheSpaceCRAFTY submission in colored pencil from Psyche Mission program scientist Sarah Noble, who was inspired by the missions name, Psyche, which is the Greek word for soul and also sometimes butterfly.

Sarah Noble

When will the Psyche mission launch?

It's scheduled to launch in August 2022, after which the Psyche spacecraft will arrive at Asteroid Psyche on January 31, 2026, after a fly-past of Mars in 2023. It's already been inspiring professional and amateur artists with its #PsycheSpaceCRAFTY platform, and the Psyche Mission will also offer free online courses to learn about space exploration.

Whats been announced?

NASA Headquarters in Washington has just revealed that the Psyche mission, which is part of NASAs Discovery Program of low-cost robotic space missions, will now begin the final design and fabrication phase called Phase C, which lasts until January 2021. A space mission typically has six phases, A-F. Phase D is the final spacecraft assembly, testing, and launch, Phase E is the deep-space operations, and Phase F is decommissioning and archiving engineering and science data. The Psyche team is not only elated that we have the go-ahead for Phase C, more importantly, we are ready," said Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe. "With the transition into this new mission phase, we are one big step closer to uncovering the secrets of Psyche, a giant mysterious metallic asteroid, and that means the world to us."


Artist's concept of the Psyche spacecraft, which will conduct a direct exploration of an asteroid thought to be a stripped planetary core.

NASA/JPL-Caltech

What do we know about the Psyche spacecraft?

It will include solar power with electric propulsion systems to travel to the asteroid, then orbit it for 21 months. Its scientific instruments used to study the asteroid will include a magnetometer to study the asteroids magnetic field, a multispectral imager to photograph it, and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer to study its composition. The mission also will test NASAs new nascent laser communications technology called Deep Space Optical Communications.

The Deep Space Optical Communications project, led by NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California, is to develop laser communications to meet this goal, which will boost connectivity speeds for future human exploration of the solar system.

NASA/JPL

NASA wants to know what its surface is like, how old it is, whether its the core of an early planet, and whether it formed in similar ways to Earth's core.

Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes &

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