Solar System: Things to Know This Week
Our Psyche mission to a metal world, which will explore a giant metal asteroid known as 16 Psyche, is getting a new, earlier launch date. Psyche is now expected to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in 2022, cruise through the solar system for 4.6 years, and arrive at the Psyche asteroid in 2026, four years earlier than planned.
Below are 10 things to know about this mission to a completely new and unexplored type of world.
1. Psyche, Squared
Psyche is the name of the NASA space mission and the name of the unique metal asteroid orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter. The asteroid was discovered in 1852 by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis and named after the Greek mythological figure Psyche, whom Cupid fell in love with. “Psyche” in Greek also means “soul.”
2. Mission: Accepted
The Psyche Mission was selected for flight earlier this year under NASA’s Discovery Program. And it will take a village to pull off: The spacecraft is being built by Space Systems Loral in Palo Alto, California; the mission is led by Arizona State University; and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will be responsible for mission management, operations and navigation.
3. An Unusual Asteroid
For the very first time, this mission will let us examine a world made not of rock and ice, but metal. Scientists think Psyche is comprised mostly of metallic iron and nickel, similar to Earth’s core - which means Psyche could be an exposed core of an early planet as large as Mars.
4. Sweet 16
Psyche the asteroid is officially known as 16 Psyche, since it was the 16th asteroid to be discovered. It lies within the asteroid belt, is irregularly shaped, about the size of Massachusetts, and is about three times farther away from the sun than Earth.
5. Discoveries Abound
The Psyche mission will observe the asteroid for 20 months. Scientists hope to discover whether Psyche is the core of an early planet, how old it is, whether it formed in similar ways to Earth’s core, and what its surface is like. The mission will also help scientists understand how planets and other bodies separated into their layers including cores, mantles and crusts early in their histories. “Psyche is the only known object of its kind in the solar system and this is the only way humans will ever visit a core,” said Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University.
6. Think Fast
The mission launch and arrival were moved up because Psyche’s mission design team were able to plot a more efficient trajectory that no longer calls for an Earth gravity assist, ultimately shortening the cruise time. The new trajectory also stays farther from the sun, reducing the amount of heat protection needed for the spacecraft, and will still include a Mars flyby in 2023.
7. Gadgets Galore
The Psyche spacecraft will be decked out with a multispectral imager, gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, magnetometer, and X-band gravity science investigation. More: https://sese.asu.edu/research/psyche
8. Stunning Solar Panels
In order to support the new mission trajectory, the solar array system was redesigned from a four-panel array in a straight row on either side of the spacecraft to a more powerful five-panel x-shaped design, commonly used for missions requiring more capability. Much like a sports car, combining a relatively small spacecraft body with a very high-power solar array design means the Psyche spacecraft will be able to speed to its destination much faster. Check out this artist’s-concept illustration here: https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/artists-concept-of-psyche-spacecraft-with-five-panel-array
9. See For Yourself
Watch the planned Psyche mission in action.
10. Even More Asteroids
Our missions to asteroids began with the orbiter NEAR of asteroid Eros, which arrived in 2000, and continues with Dawn, which orbited Vesta and is now in an extended mission at Ceres. The mission OSIRIS-REx, which launched on Sept. 8, 2016, is speeding toward a 2018 rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu, and will deliver a sample back to Earth in 2023. The Lucy mission is scheduled to launch in October 2021 and will explore six Jupiter Trojan asteroids. More: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=6713
Want to learn more? Read our full list of the 10 things to know this week about the solar system HERE.
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