Posted on Leave a comment

NASA’s Psyche Probe Embarks on a Historic Mission to Metal Asteroid 16 Psyche

In a remarkable and unprecedented journey of discovery, NASA’s Psyche probe has officially launched on a mission to explore the enigmatic metal asteroid known as 16 Psyche. The asteroid, believed to be composed of up to 60% iron and nickel, is poised to reveal the secrets of our Solar System’s distant past.

The launch of the spacecraft, aptly named Psyche, took place from Cape Canaveral, Florida, and was carried into space by a Falcon-Heavy rocket. The launch occurred at precisely 10:19:43 local time, embarking on a six-year, 2.2-billion-mile journey to 16 Psyche, positioned between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Scientists are brimming with anticipation as they believe this mission will provide unprecedented insights into the formation of the Solar System. While there are approximately one and a half million known asteroids in our Solar System, only nine exhibit properties similar to Psyche. Among these, Psyche stands out as the largest, with a diameter of about 175 miles (280 kilometers).

Principal investigator Prof. Lindy Elkins-Tanton from Arizona State University expressed her excitement, stating, “The big thrill is that we’re going to go see a kind of world that humans have never seen before. We don’t have any close-up pictures of it; we do not know what it looks like. To me, that’s the essence of exploration, that people always want to see what they haven’t seen yet.”

The Psyche spacecraft is set to reach the asteroid in August 2029, where it will enter orbit at various distances, the closest being approximately 47 miles (75 kilometers). During its mission, the probe will map the asteroid’s shape and conduct studies to decipher its internal structure and composition, promising fascinating and potentially groundbreaking discoveries.

One intriguing aspect that scientists hope to observe is the impact of high-speed micrometeoroids on the asteroid’s surface, potentially resulting in the development of a unique, spiky appearance and perhaps a covering of “metal sand.”

While telescopes have identified iron and nickel as the predominant components of 16 Psyche, other elements, possibly yellowish-green, sulfur-rich rocks, have been detected. The presence of metal cliffs, believed to have formed as Psyche cooled and cracked over the past 4.6 billion years, is also a possibility.

Deputy principal investigator, Ben Weiss, explained two leading theories regarding Psyche’s origin. One suggests that Psyche is the exposed core of a planetary body, stripped of its outer rocky layers by asteroid impacts during the early Solar System’s tumultuous era. The other posits that Psyche may be a pristine, unmelted body formed from the Solar System’s earliest materials, preserved in its initial state.

If Psyche does indeed prove to be the exposed core of a failed planet, it might exhibit a “fossil” magnetic field, providing insights into the dynamics of the early Solar System. Furthermore, the composition of metal meteorites on Earth, believed to originate from objects similar to Psyche, has raised the possibility of asteroid mining, with Psyche’s resources estimated to be worth trillions of dollars.

NASA plans to trial two innovative technologies during the mission. The first involves electric propulsion, using solar power to excite and accelerate xenon gas for continuous thrust. The second employs laser beams to enhance data transmission rates.

The mission team has committed to making all imagery and data collected by Psyche available to the public within half an hour of it reaching Earth, ensuring that this historic mission remains accessible to all.