NASA has greenlit a mission to explore the heavy-metal asteroid Psyche, which may represent the exposed core of a long-dead planet. The mission’s survival had previously been called into question after technical problems forced it to miss the 2022 launch window.
In 1852, the Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis discovered a celestial body roaming the night sky and named it after the Greek goddess of the spirit, Psyche.
Subsequent telescope observations revealed that Psyche is actually a 140-mile (226 km) wide, high-metal asteroid orbiting in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Mars. Jupiter.
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Psyche’s metal-heavy makeup, which makes up 30 to 60 percent of its total mass, sets it apart from the rest of the million-plus asteroids known to roam our solar system. Many astronomers now believe that this strange object may be the exposed nickel-iron core of an ancient primordial planet whose outer layers were blasted away in a series of ancient collisions with other young planetoids.
If so, Psyche would represent a unique opportunity to probe the core of a world that formed billions of years ago in the chaotic environment believed to have prevailed in space around our young star.
As a rule, it was not possible to directly observe the core of the planet. For example, Earth’s metal-dominated heart is locked in a phenomenally high-pressure environment at about 5,000°C (9,000°F) about 3,000 km (1,800 mi) below the surface. These are not ideal conditions for scientific research.
Therefore, despite orbiting the Sun in the hostile environment of interplanetary space, Psyche’s open core seems too good to be true. By observing a planetary remnant, astronomers can gain insight into the formation of the Solar System’s mighty planets, including Earth, and the many distant exoplanets discovered so far.
In 2017, NASA announced its intention to send an unmanned probe to meet and study aliens. The spacecraft will be equipped with two solar panels – which together give an impressive wingspan of 81 feet (25 meters) on the probe.
In addition to powering the probe’s suite of scientific instruments, the electricity generated by the panels will also be used to convert xenon gas into xenon ions, which will then be ejected from the back of the spacecraft to provide thrust.
The Psyche mission is currently undergoing rigorous testing before being launched on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.
However, the road to work has been anything but smooth. Psyche missed its initial launch date of 2022 thanks to a series of technical setbacks, including problems with the probe’s flight control software. These problems were so serious that both an internal review and an independent investigation were created to examine the technical issues surrounding the mission and see if it was still viable.
The results of the independent investigation are still being finalized and will be made public at a later date.
However, where October. On the 10th, NASA announced that the mission would not be canceled and that instead the agency was aiming to launch the robotic spacecraft on October 1st. 10 next year. The mission’s lifetime budget is $985 million, of which $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 alter its trajectory in 2026. Assuming this is successful, mission operators expect to rendezvous with the probe. asteroid Psyche in August 2029.
“I appreciate the hard work of the independent review board and the JPL-led team for the mission’s success,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “The lessons learned from Psyche will be applied across our mission portfolio. I am excited about the scientific insights that Psyche will provide over its lifetime and the promise of contributing to our understanding of our planet’s core.
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Anthony Wood is a freelance science writer for IGN
Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin
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