NASA approves the Psyche mission to explore the core of an ancient planet

NASA approves the Psyche mission to explore the core of an ancient planet

NASA has given the go-ahead for a mission to explore the metals of the heavy asteroid Psyche, which could represent the discovered core of a long-dead planet. The mission’s survival had previously been called into question due to technical problems that 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.

Later telescope observations revealed that Psyche is actually a 140-mile-wide (226 km) high-metal asteroid orbiting in the main asteroid belt that lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Psyche’s metallic composition – which makes up somewhere between 30-60 percent of its total mass – sets it apart from the rest of the million-plus asteroids known to roam our solar system. Many astronomers now believe that the strange body may be the exposed nickel-iron core of an ancient primordial planet, whose outer layers were blown away during a series of ancient collisions with other young planetoids.

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

It would normally be impossible to make direct observations of a planet’s core. Earth’s metal-dominated heart, for example, is locked about 3,000 km (1,800 miles) below the surface in a phenomenally high-pressure environment that has a temperature of about 5,000°C (9,000°F). These are not ideal conditions for scientific study.

Therefore, despite the fact that it orbits the Sun in the hostile environment of interplanetary space, the exposed core of Psyche seems almost too good to be true. By observing the planetary remnant, astronomers could gain insight into the formation of the solar system’s mighty planets, including Earth and the multitude of distant exoplanets discovered to date.

Artist's impression of the Psyche spacecraft 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 Psyche spacecraft 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 an alien world. The spacecraft will be powered by two solar panels – which together give the probe an impressive wingspan of 81 feet (25 meters).

In addition to powering a suite of science instruments mounted on 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 back of the spacecraft to provide thrust.

The Psyche mission is currently progressing through rigorous testing before its final launch aboard the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

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

The findings of the independent audit are still in the finalization phase 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 instead the agency intends to launch the robotic spacecraft as early as October 10 of next year. The mission has a lifetime budget of US$985 million, of which over US$717 million has already been spent.

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

“I appreciate the hard work of the independent review board and the JPL-led team towards the mission’s success,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “The lessons learned from Psyche will be implemented across our mission portfolio. I am excited about the scientific insights that Psyche will provide over its lifetime and the promise that it will add to our understanding of our planet’s core.”

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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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