NASA has a green mission to explore the heavy metal asteroid Psyche, which could represent the exposed core of a long-dead planet. The mission’s survival was previously in question after technical issues forced it to miss its launch window in 2022.
In 1852 Italian astronomer Annibal de Gasparis discovered a wandering celestial body passing through the night sky, which he named to the Greek goddess of the soul, Psyche.
Subsequent telescope observations revealed that Psyche was in fact an asteroid 140 miles wide (226 km) high in metal, orbiting in the main asteroid belt located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
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Psyche’s heavy mineral composition – which accounts for somewhere between 30-60 percent of its total mass – distinguishes it from the rest of the more than 1 million asteroids known to roam our solar system. Many astronomers now believe that the strange object may be the exposed iron-nickel core of an ancient primordial planet, whose outer layers exploded during a series of ancient collisions with other young planets.
If so, Psyche will present a unique opportunity to explore the core of a world born in the chaotic environment that was thought to be prevalent in space around our young star billions of years ago.
Normally, it would be impossible to make direct observations about the core of a planet. Earth’s metal-dominated core, for example, is locked about 3,000 kilometers (1,800 miles) below the surface in an environment of enormously high pressure, which has a temperature of about 5,000 degrees Celsius (9,000 degrees Fahrenheit). These are not ideal conditions for scientific study.
So, despite the fact that it orbits the Sun in an environment hostile to interplanetary space, Psyche’s exposed core looks too good to be true. By observing planetary remnants, astronomers can gain insight into the composition of the solar system’s powerful planets, including Earth and many of the distant exoplanets discovered so far.
In 2017, NASA announced its intention to send an unmanned probe to meet and explore the alien world. The spacecraft will be powered by two solar panels – which together give the probe an impressive wingspan of 81 feet (25 metres).
Besides powering the probe’s suite of science instruments, the electricity generated from the panels will also be used to convert xenon gas into xenon ions, which can then be released from the back of the spacecraft to provide thrust.
Psyche’s mission is currently progressing through rigorous testing before its final launch atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.
However, the road to launch was not smooth at all. Psyche missed its initial launch date in 2022 thanks to a series of technical setbacks, including problems with the probe’s flight control software. These problems were so severe that an internal review and independent investigation was conducted to examine the technical issues surrounding the mission and see if it was still viable.
The results of the independent review are still being finalized and will be made public at a later time.
However, on October 10, NASA announced that the mission would not be canceled after all, and instead, the agency was aiming to launch the robotic spacecraft as soon as possible on October 10 next year. The mission’s budget is $985 million, of which more than $717 million has already been spent.
If all goes well during the October 2023 launch, the lone probe will travel through interplanetary space for about three years before using Mars’ gravity to radically change its course in 2026. Assuming this is successful, mission operators expect the probe to meet the asteroid Psyche in August 2029. .
“I appreciate the hard work that the independent review board and the team led by JPL did for the success of the mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Lessons from Psyche will be carried across our entire range of missions. I am excited about the scientific insights Psyche will provide during her lifetime and promise to contribute to our understanding of our planet’s core.”
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Anthony Wood is a freelance science writer at IGN
Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State University/Loral Space Systems/Peter Rubin