NASA approves Psyche mission to explore ancient planet's core - IGN

NASA approves Psyche mission to explore ancient planet’s core – IGN

NASA has given the go-ahead for a mission to explore the asteroid Psyche, which could represent the exposed core of a long-dead planet. The mission’s survival had previously been in doubt following technical issues that forced it to miss its 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 was actually a 140 mile (226 km) wide asteroid with a high metal content, which orbited in the main asteroid belt located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

Psyche’s heavy metal composition – which accounts for somewhere between 30 and 60% of its total mass – sets it apart from the rest of the million-plus asteroids that are known to roam our solar system. Many astronomers now believe the strange body could be the exposed nickel-iron core of an ancient primordial planet, the outer layers of which were destroyed in a series of ancient collisions with other young planetoids.

If so, Psyche would represent a unique opportunity to explore the heart of a world born into the chaotic environment that was believed to reign in space around our young star billions of years ago. .

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

Therefore, despite orbiting the Sun in the harsh environment of interplanetary space, Psyche’s exposed core seems almost too good to be true. By observing the planetary remnant, astronomers could gain insight into the formation of the mighty planets of the solar system, including Earth and the multitude of distant exoplanets that have been 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 plans to send an unmanned probe to encounter and explore the extraterrestrial world. The spacecraft will be powered by two solar panels – which together give the probe an impressive 81-foot (25-meter) wingspan.

In addition to operating the suite of scientific 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 rear of the spacecraft to provide thrust.

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

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

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

However, on October 10, NASA announced that the mission would ultimately not be abandoned and instead the agency was aiming to launch the robotic spacecraft as early as October 10 next year. The mission has a lifetime budget of US$985 million, of which more than US$717 million has already been spent.

If all goes well at the October 2023 launch, the lone probe will travel through interplanetary space for about three years before using Mars’ gravity to dramatically alter its trajectory in 2026. Assuming it’s a success, mission operators expect the probe to encounter asteroid Psyche in August 2029.

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

Stay tuned to IGN’s Science page to stay up to date with the weird and wonderful world of science.

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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