NASA approves Psyche mission to explore ancient planet’s core

NASA approves Psyche mission to explore ancient planet’s core

NASA has given the go-ahead for a mission to explore the metal-heavy asteroid Psyche, which could represent the exposed core of a long-dead planet. The mission’s survival was previously called into question after technical difficulties forced it to miss the 2022 launch window.

In 1852, Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis discovered a wandering celestial body crossing the night sky, which he named after the Greek goddess of the soul, Psyche.

Subsequent telescope observations revealed that Psyche was in fact a 226 km wide asteroid with a high metal content, orbiting the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Mars. Jupiter.

Psyche’s metal-heavy composition — which makes up anywhere from 30 to 60 percent of its total mass — sets it apart from the rest of the more than a million asteroids known to roam our solar system. Many astronomers now believe that the foreign body is the exposed nickel-iron core of an ancient primordial planet, the outer layers of which were blasted during a series of ancient collisions with other young asteroids.

If this were the case, Psyche would be a unique opportunity to explore the core of a world born in the chaotic environment that would rule the space around our young star billions of years ago.

Normally, it would be impossible to observe a planet’s core directly. The metal-dominated heart of the Earth, for example, is locked some 3,000 km below the surface in a phenomenally high-pressure environment, with a temperature of about 5,000 °C (9,000 °F). These are not ideal conditions for scientific research.

Therefore, despite orbiting the sun in the hostile environment of interplanetary space, Psyche’s exposed core seems almost too good to be true. By observing the planetary remnant, astronomers were able to gain insight into the formation of the solar system’s mighty planets, including Earth and the multitude of distant exoplanets discovered so far.

Artist's impression of the spacecraft Psyche orbiting the core of an alien planet.  (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin)

Artist’s impression of the spacecraft Psyche orbiting the core of an alien planet. (Image Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin)

In 2017, NASA announced its intention to send an unmanned probe to meet and explore the alien world. The spacecraft will be powered by two solar panels – which together give the probe an impressive wingspan of 25 meters.

In addition to running the array of scientific instruments mounted aboard the probe, the electricity generated by the panels will also be used to convert xenon gas into xenon ions, which can then be fired from the rear of the spacecraft. to provide thrust.

The Psyche mission is currently progressing through rigorous testing prior to its eventual launch atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

However, the road to launch was anything but smooth. Psyche missed its original 2022 launch date due to a series of technical setbacks, including issues with the probe’s flight control software. These problems were so serious that both an internal review and an independent investigation were launched to examine the technical issues surrounding the mission and see if it was still viable.

The findings of the independent review are still being finalized and will be made available to the public at a later date.

However, on October 10, NASA announced that the mission would not be canceled after all, and that the agency instead aimed to launch the robotic spacecraft on October 10 next year. The mission has a lifetime budget of $985 million, of which more than $717 million has already been spent.

If all goes well during its October 2023 launch, the lone probe will travel through interplanetary space for about three years before using Mars’ gravity to radically alter its orbit in 2026. Assuming this is a success, mission operators expect the probe to rendezvous with the asteroid Psyche in August 2029.

“I appreciate the hard work of the independent review committee and the JPL-led team for the success of the mission,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, the Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “Lessons learned from Psyche will be implemented across our mission portfolio. I am excited about the scientific insights that Psyche will provide during her lifetime and her promise to contribute to our understanding of the core of our own planet.”

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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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