Launch of NASA Spacecraft Marks First-Ever Mission to Uncommon Metallic Asteroid

by Andrew Wright
NASA's Psyche mission

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft embarked on a six-year odyssey last Friday, aiming to investigate an unusual asteroid composed primarily of metal. Unlike the predominantly rocky or icy asteroids that have been the subject of past missions, this marks humanity’s first foray into exploring a metallic celestial body. Scientists speculate that this asteroid may be the fragmented core of a proto-planet and could provide critical insights into the cores of Earth and other terrestrial planets that remain largely unexplored.

The spacecraft was launched via a SpaceX rocket in overcast conditions from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center. The spacecraft is named Psyche, after the asteroid it is set to rendezvous with in 2029. This celestial body is a massive, potato-shaped rock that orbits in the outer region of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Laurie Leshin, the director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, expressed excitement about the mission, as did Jim Bell of Arizona State University, who is a key member of the Psyche mission team. An hour post-launch, the spacecraft successfully disengaged from the rocket’s upper stage, eliciting applause from mission control.

This mission represents a departure for NASA, which has primarily focused on studying worlds comprised of rock, ice, and gas. Psyche is the largest of around nine metallic asteroids discovered to date. It orbits alongside millions of other asteroids in a region between Mars and Jupiter and was first identified in 1852. The asteroid was named after the soul’s goddess in Greek mythology.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the lead scientist from Arizona State University, emphasized the historical human fascination with exploring Earth’s metallic core, a feat hindered by extreme pressures, temperatures, and current technological limitations. The mission to Psyche offers a unique opportunity to study a metallic core, she noted.

The asteroid’s dimensions span approximately 144 miles (232 kilometers) at its widest and 173 miles (280 kilometers) in length. It is thought to be rich in iron, nickel, and possibly silicates. Its dull, grey surface is believed to be covered in fine grains of metal due to cosmic impacts. The celestial body remains largely enigmatic and will continue to be until the spacecraft completes its more than 2 billion-mile (3.6 billion-kilometer) journey to reach it.

Scientists anticipate encountering metallic geological formations, like jagged craters and cliffs, possibly discolored by sulfur. However, such projections are speculative, according to Elkins-Tanton. Trace elements like gold, silver, platinum, or iridium could also be present, dissolved within the asteroid’s iron and nickel composition.

Elkins-Tanton posits that the asteroid may hold keys to understanding fundamental aspects of our solar system, including the origins of life on Earth and the factors that make our planet habitable. Earth’s iron core generates the magnetic field crucial for maintaining our atmosphere and sustaining life.

The mission, overseen by Arizona State University on behalf of NASA, comes with a price tag of $1.2 billion. The spacecraft, roughly the size of a van with solar panels as large as a tennis court, will execute a gravity assist maneuver around Mars in 2026 before reaching the asteroid three years later. The spacecraft employs solar electric propulsion and will test a novel laser-based communication system designed to dramatically increase data transmission capabilities.

Originally slated for launch a year prior, the mission experienced delays due to issues in flight software testing and management inefficiencies. Consequently, the spacecraft is now expected to arrive at its destination in 2029, rather than the initially planned 2026.

In a coincidental alignment, another NASA mission, recently successful in returning asteroid samples to Earth, is scheduled to reach a different celestial body in 2029 as it orbits Earth.

This article is brought to you by the Health and Science Department of The Big Big News, which is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP retains sole responsibility for the content.

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about NASA’s Psyche mission

What is the main objective of NASA’s Psyche mission?

The primary objective of NASA’s Psyche mission is to explore a unique metallic asteroid. Scientists believe that this asteroid could be the fragmented core of an early planet and may provide crucial insights into the inaccessible cores of Earth and other rocky planets.

Who is responsible for launching the Psyche spacecraft?

The Psyche spacecraft was launched by SpaceX from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center.

What makes this asteroid different from others?

Unlike most asteroids that are primarily composed of rock or ice, this particular asteroid is predominantly metallic. It is the largest of approximately nine known metallic asteroids and is thought to contain valuable elements like iron, nickel, and possibly even trace amounts of gold, silver, platinum, or iridium.

When is the spacecraft expected to reach the asteroid?

The Psyche spacecraft is expected to rendezvous with the asteroid in 2029.

What is the size of the asteroid?

The asteroid has approximate dimensions of 144 miles (232 kilometers) at its widest and 173 miles (280 kilometers) in length.

What is the budget for this mission?

The mission is overseen by Arizona State University on behalf of NASA and has an estimated cost of $1.2 billion.

What kinds of technology are being used in this mission?

The spacecraft employs solar electric propulsion, using xenon gas-fed thrusters. Additionally, an experimental laser-based communication system will be tested to increase data transmission capabilities.

Why was the mission delayed?

Originally, the mission was planned to launch a year earlier but faced delays due to issues in flight software testing and management inefficiencies. As a result, the spacecraft is now expected to arrive at its destination in 2029 instead of the initially planned 2026.

Will the spacecraft perform any maneuvers during its journey?

Yes, the spacecraft is planned to execute a gravity assist maneuver around Mars in 2026 to help it reach the asteroid.

What are the potential scientific implications of this mission?

Scientists believe that the mission could provide critical information about the cores of Earth and other rocky planets. It may also help answer fundamental questions about the origins of life on Earth and what makes our planet habitable.

More about NASA’s Psyche mission

  • NASA’s Official Psyche Mission Page
  • SpaceX Launch Operations
  • Arizona State University’s Psyche Mission Overview
  • Kennedy Space Center Launch Schedule
  • Overview of Metallic Asteroids
  • Basics of Solar Electric Propulsion
  • The Role of Earth’s Core in Sustaining Life
  • Importance of Laser-Based Communication Systems in Space Exploration

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EcoWarrior October 13, 2023 - 6:51 pm

So were spending billions on space but what about our own planet? Just saying, priorities?

SkepticSam October 13, 2023 - 8:05 pm

1.2 billion bucks for this? Hope its not another expensive flop. But if it works, man, it’ll rewrite textbooks.

SpaceFanatic October 13, 2023 - 8:44 pm

A 6-year journey? thats a long wait but surely it’ll be worth it. The info on earth’s core could be a game changer.

FutureAstronaut October 13, 2023 - 10:34 pm

This is the stuff that makes me wanna be an astronaut. Imagine being the first to step on a metal asteroid!

JohnDoe October 14, 2023 - 1:53 am

Wow, this is mind-blowing stuff. Finally we’re looking beyond just rock and ice in space. Can’t wait for 2029!

HistoryBuff October 14, 2023 - 6:41 am

Named after the Greek goddess of the soul, huh? Love how they blend science and mythology.

CuriousMindy October 14, 2023 - 1:14 pm

I wonder what they’ll find out there. Gold and platinum on an asteroid? Sounds like a sci-fi movie!

TechGeek October 14, 2023 - 3:40 pm

Xenon gas-fed thrusters and laser-based comms? this mission is packed with tech goodness. Hats off to NASA and ASU.


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