NASA’s daring mission to a weird and unique asteroid called 16 Psyche is now entering its final phase. The spacecraft is due to arrive soon in its clean rooms to prepare for launch, reports the space agency.
Due to leave Earth in 18 months, the spacecraft’s science instruments and engineering systems have been passed and are now ready to test, assemble, and integrate—something described by its principal investigator as “near-miraculous” given the pandemic.
At stake for astronomers is a better understanding of how Earth and other planets formed.
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What is 16 Psyche?
16 Psyche—recently at opposition—is a mostly iron and nickel (hence the mooted value) asteroid about in the Solar System’s asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Around 140 miles/226 kilometers in diameter, it’s thought that 16 Psyche could be the exposed core of a dead planet that lost its outer layers.
NASA wants to know what its surface is like, how old it is, whether it’s the core of an early planet, and whether it formed in similar ways to Earth’s core.
Is 16 Psyche really worth so much money? In practice, the act of mining its iron and nickel would probably crash commodities markets for those resources.
Why is 16 Psyche so interesting?
It’s thought that by examining Psyche planetary scientists can figure out how rocky planets formed.
Exposed nickel-iron cores of early planets are one of the building blocks of our Solar System. Every rocky planet has a nickel-iron core. However, they’re wrapped in mantles and crusts so impossible to study.
Psyche was recently examined by the Hubble Space Telescope.
What is the Psyche mission?
It’s a near-$1 billion mission to visit the asteroid that’s part of NASA’s Discovery Program of low-cost robotic space missions.
Around $850 million is being spent on mission development, operations and science, and a further $117 million in launch costs—so $967 million in total.
It’s due to launch in August 2022 atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Complex 39A at Cape Canaveral Air Force Station in Florida.
Hitching a ride will be NASA’s Janus mission—two small satellites that will visit two binary asteroids.
Once at Psyche the spacecraft use its magnetometer to search for a magnetic field—a telltale sign of its likely metal make-up—capture images of its surface, and analyse its composition. Only then will we know its true value—both scientifically and economically.
What’s the status of the Psyche mission?
The solar-powered Psyche spacecraft is now entering Phase D—the final spacecraft assembly, testing, and launch. A space mission typically has six phases, A-F. Next up for Psyche is Phase E—deep-space operations.
Overseen by Arizona State University, Maxar Technologies’ Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) chassis has been built by Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California.
The spacecraft will now move to the clear room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) for assembly, test and launch operations.
What are people saying about the Psyche mission?
“It’s really the final phase, when all of the puzzle pieces are coming together and we’re getting on the rocket,” said Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe. “The fact that we can still make this happen and we’re overcoming our challenges feels near-miraculous,” she said, referencing the pandemic and resulting disruption.
“Reaching this milestone has special meaning—not just for this project that we’ve been working on for a decade, but also because of what’s been happening more recently in all of our lives.”
How will the spacecraft get to 16 Psyche?
After launch in August 2022, Psyche will get a gravity assist from Mars in May 2023 and arrive at its target in early 2026 after a 230 million miles/370 million kilometers journey from Earth. It will orbit for 21 months.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.