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NASA Initiates Psyche Mission to Investigate Peculiar Asteroid

The mission will explore a metal-rich asteroid that might reveal the early planetary building blocks of our solar system.

The Psyche spacecraft was successfully launched by NASA at 10:19 am EDT on Oct. 13 at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The initial launch had to be postponed due to unfavorable weather conditions.

The primary objective of the Psyche mission is to conduct scientific research for a period of 21 months, exploring the peculiar metallic asteroid that shares its name. Positioned in the main belt between Mars and Jupiter, Asteroid 16 Psyche has drawn significant attention due to its high metal content. Scientists believe that studying this particular object could provide crucial insights into the formation of planets within our solar system. It is suspected that the asteroid may potentially be the exposed nickel-iron core of a planetesimal, which serves as an early building block for planets.

By studying such a planetesimal, researchers can gain valuable knowledge about the inner workings of terrestrial planets. Since physically reaching the metal core of a rocky planet is currently unattainable, the Psyche mission serves as an exceptional substitute. Moreover, even if the asteroid does not turn out to be an exposed core, its unique metallic composition suggests that it may be an even more intriguing object than previously anticipated.

Rocky beginnings

The Psyche mission faced a delay in its launch due to NASA missing its 2022 launch window. In a previous press release, NASA acknowledged that insufficient time was available to complete the necessary testing before the designated launch period.

As a result of this missed deadline, an Independent Review Board (IRB) conducted an investigation to determine the cause. The IRB’s findings revealed that various factors, including software issues, delayed software delivery, communication failures among staff members and management, and staffing problems, contributed to the delay. The report also highlighted that these challenges were not unique to the Psyche mission but rather indicative of broader institutional issues at JPL.

The journey

Psyche’s journey to its target will cover a distance of 2.2 billion miles (3.5 billion kilometers) and will heavily rely on solar-electric propulsion. Over the course of six years, the spacecraft will utilize large solar arrays to convert sunlight into electricity, which will power its thrusters. These thrusters will generate electromagnetic fields to propel Psyche forward by accelerating xenon atoms, which serve as its fuel.

During its voyage, Psyche will make a close approach to Mars in 2026 to benefit from a gravity assist. By utilizing the gravitational pull of the Red Planet, the spacecraft will increase its velocity and alter its trajectory without depleting its limited onboard propellants. At its nearest encounter with Mars, it will come within a range of 1,900 to 2,700 miles (3,000 to 4,400 km) above the planet’s surface.

Furthermore, the mission will also evaluate a new high-speed optical laser communications technology called Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) while en route to Psyche. This technology holds potential for future solar system missions.

Upon reaching the asteroid Psyche in August 2029, the spacecraft will spend approximately two years orbiting the asteroid and collecting data. It will eventually approach as close as 47 miles (76 km) to the asteroid’s surface.

Psyche’s principal investigator, Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University, expressed her anticipation, stating, “I am ready to be ecstatic. We all are, but we are not ecstatic yet. Let’s launch and establish communications — then we can scream, jump, and hug each other.”

This article is republished from astronomy.com under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

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