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Let’s Explore a Metal-Rich Asteroid 🤘

Let's Explore a Metal-Rich Asteroid 🤘

Space provides a dark backdrop for this image, with small twinkling stars dotting the background. At the center of the image is the artist’s illustration of the Psyche asteroid with deep craters and metal all around. The Psyche spacecraft is in the front, with the main body in the middle of large solar arrays on each side. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASUALT

Let’s Explore a Metal-Rich Asteroid 🤘

Between Mars and Jupiter, there lies a unique, metal-rich asteroid named Psyche. Psyche’s special because it looks like it is part or all of the metallic interior of a planetesimal—an early planetary building block of our solar system. For the first time, we have the chance to visit a planetary core and possibly learn more about the turbulent history that created terrestrial planets.

Here are six things to know about the mission that’s a journey into the past: Psyche.

Artist’s concept of the Psyche spacecraft orbiting the metal asteroid Psyche. At the center of the image is the spacecraft with large solar arrays on each side of the main body. At the bottom-right is the metal asteroid with peaks sticking out of the surface. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter RubinALT

1. Psyche could help us learn more about the origins of our solar system.

After studying data from Earth-based radar and optical telescopes, scientists believe that Psyche collided with other large bodies in space and lost its outer rocky shell. This leads scientists to think that Psyche could have a metal-rich interior, which is a building block of a rocky planet. Since we can’t pierce the core of rocky planets like Mercury, Venus, Mars, and our home planet, Earth, Psyche offers us a window into how other planets are formed.

ALT text: Artist’s concept of the asteroid Psyche. The darkness of space takes up the entire background with small twinkly stars. Two large craters are at the center of the asteroid. The asteroid is mostly silvery with a few spots of copper on the surface. The word "Illustration" is printed at the bottom to the right of the asteroid. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/Peter RubinALT

2. Psyche might be different than other objects in the solar system.

Rocks on Mars, Mercury, Venus, and Earth contain iron oxides. From afar, Psyche doesn’t seem to feature these chemical compounds, so it might have a different history of formation than other planets.

If the Psyche asteroid is leftover material from a planetary formation, scientists are excited to learn about the similarities and differences from other rocky planets. The asteroid might instead prove to be a never-before-seen solar system object. Either way, we’re prepared for the possibility of the unexpected!

Two engineers, John Goldsten (left) and Sam Fix (right), work on the Gamma Ray/Neutron Spectrometer instrument at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory. Credit: Johns Hopkins APL/Craig WeimanALT

3. Three science instruments and a gravity science investigation will be aboard the spacecraft.

The three instruments aboard will be a magnetometer, a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer, and a multispectral imager. Here’s what each of them will do:

  • Magnetometer: Detect evidence of a magnetic field, which will tell us whether the asteroid formed from a planetary body
  • Gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer: Help us figure out what chemical elements Psyche is made of, and how it was formed
  • Multispectral imager: Gather and share information about the topography and mineral composition of Psyche

The gravity science investigation will allow scientists to determine the asteroid’s rotation, mass, and gravity field and to gain insight into the interior by analyzing the radio waves it communicates with. Then, scientists can measure how Psyche affects the spacecraft’s orbit.

A Hall-effect thruster emits a blue glow trailing behind the spacecraft. Credit: NASA/JPL-CaltechALT

4. The Psyche spacecraft will use a super-efficient propulsion system.

Psyche’s solar electric propulsion system harnesses energy from large solar arrays that convert sunlight into electricity, creating thrust. For the first time ever, we will be using Hall-effect thrusters in deep space.

Pictured in front of the spacecraft is Lindy Elkins-Tanton, being interviewed by a member of the media at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/JPL-CaltechALT

5. This mission runs on collaboration.

To make this mission happen, we work together with universities, and industry and NASA to draw in resources and expertise.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory manages the mission and is responsible for system engineering, integration, and mission operations, while NASA’s Kennedy Space Center’s Launch Services Program manages launch operations and procured the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

Working with Arizona State University (ASU) offers opportunities for students to train as future instrument or mission leads. Mission leader and Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton is also based at ASU.

Finally, Maxar Technologies is a key commercial participant and delivered the main body of the spacecraft, as well as most of its engineering hardware systems.

Members of the Psyche team pose for a photo at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Credit: NASA/JPL-CaltechALT

6. You can be a part of the journey.

Everyone can find activities to get involved on the mission’s webpage. There’s an annual internship to interpret the mission, capstone courses for undergraduate projects, and age-appropriate lessons, craft projects, and videos.

You can join us for a virtual launch experience, and, of course, you can watch the launch with us on Oct. 12, 2023, at 10:16 a.m. EDT!

For official news on the mission, follow us on social media and check out NASA’s and ASU’s Psyche websites.

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