NASA Launches Space Mission to Asteroid Psyche
On Friday, October 13, NASA launched the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from the Kennedy Space Center at Cape Canaveral with a spacecraft onboard for the purpose of exploring the asteroid Psyche, according to Reuters. This launch marked the first attempt to study a metal-rich asteroid, which scientists believe may be the remnant core of an ancient protoplanet that perished during the formation of the Solar System.
The spacecraft is set to embark on an extensive journey into space, covering a distance of 3.5 billion kilometers to reach the asteroid, expected to occur in August 2029. NASA experts plan to spend the next 3-4 months testing the spacecraft's systems before sending it from low Earth orbit into deep space. This will mark the first flight of an unmanned spacecraft utilizing solar-electric ion thrusters.
Upon reaching the asteroid, the spacecraft will orbit it for over two years, scanning and studying Psyche with high-precision equipment designed to measure its gravity, magnetic properties, and composition.
According to scientists, the asteroid Psyche primarily consists of iron, nickel, gold, and other metals, with its hypothetical cumulative value estimated at $10 quadrillion. However, the interplanetary mission's objective is not to mine resources in space. The flight's goal is to thoroughly investigate the fundamentally different protoplanet Psyche, allowing for a better understanding of the early stages of Earth's formation. Earth's core is too deep and too hot for direct research, making Psyche a unique opportunity to study a similar, solid core devoid of a rocky outer layer. NASA specialists describe the asteroid Psyche as a planetary building block that will help answer fundamental questions about the origins of life on Earth and what makes our planet conducive to life.
"So we say, tongue-in-cheek, that we're going to outer space to explore inner space," Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Psyche's principal investigator for NASA's mission partner Arizona State University, told a briefing for reporters on Tuesday.
In addition to studying the asteroid, the spacecraft will test a new experimental communication system that employs laser beams instead of radio waves to maximize and expedite the data flow transmitted from the Psyche spacecraft to Earth.