NASA clears Psyche mission design in major step to explore metal-rich asteroid for clues on Earth's origins

The mission, with an August 2022 deadline, will chase and explore an asteroid which scientists believe may be the core of an Earth-like planet

                            NASA clears Psyche mission design in major step to explore metal-rich asteroid for clues on Earth's origins
Artist's concept of the Psyche spacecraft (NASA)

Understanding an oddball asteroid — which orbits the sun in a region between Mars and Jupiter — is just years away. NASA has just finalized the design of their spacecraft that will explore the celestial body, bringing it one step closer to its goal of having the mission ready before the August 2022 deadline. Typically, asteroids are mainly made of ice and rocks. But the asteroid in question, Psyche, is different, thanks to its reserves of metals such as iron and nickel. NASA suspects that the odd cosmic body could be the ruins of an ancient planet. The 2022 mission will help them confirm their theory. The mission, which is also named Psyche, has just cleared its first hurdle. "It's one of the most intense reviews a mission goes through in its entire life cycle," Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the principal investigator, said in a statement. "And we passed with flying colors. The challenges are not over, and we're not at the finish line, but we're running strong."

According to NASA, the asteroid resembles a potato. It measures 226 kilometers in diameter which is roughly the distance between Los Angeles and San Diego. Observation suggested that it is metal-rich. So, "scientists wonder whether Psyche could be an exposed core of an early planet, maybe as large as Mars, that lost its rocky outer layers due to a number of violent collisions billions of years ago," the space agency said. Earth's inner core is beyond reach, for now. So scientists are hoping that Psyche which is metal-rich like Earth — could provide answers on the origins of our planet and others. If everything goes according to plan, the mission will take off in August 2022. It will arrive at its destination by early 2026. And in the next 21 months, it will study the asteroid and map its properties. "The mission’s goal is, among other things, to determine whether Psyche is indeed the core of a planet-sized object," NASA said.

Artist's concept of the asteroid 16 Psyche (NASA)


The spacecraft will be armed with instruments, including a magnetometer to measure the asteroid's magnetic field. It will have a multispectral imager to photograph Psyche's surface and gather data about the composition and the physical features. A spectrometer will study the neutrons and gamma from the celestial body's surface to identify elements present. And a laser device, Deep Space Optical Communication, will be in charge of transferring data back to our planet. They tested their spacecraft design using models. "This is planning on steroids," said Elkins-Tanton, managing director and co-chair of the Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University in Tempe. "And it includes trying to understand down to seven or eight levels of detail exactly how everything on the spacecraft has to work together to ensure we can measure our science, gather our data and send all the data back to Earth. The complexity is mind-boggling." The team has its glued to kickstarting the assembling, testing and launching operations in February 2021. "I get goosebumps — absolutely," Psyche Project Manager Henry Stone of JPL, said. "When we get to that point, you've made it through a huge phase, because you know you've done enough prototyping and testing. You're going to have a spacecraft that should work."

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