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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
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NASA has given the green light for a mission to explore the metal-heavy asteroid Psyche, which could represent the exposed core of a long-dead planet. The mission’s survival had previously been called into question after technical problems forced it to miss its 2022 launch window.

In 1852, Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis discovered a wandering celestial body traversing the night sky, which he named after the Greek goddess of souls, Psyche.

Later telescopic observations showed that Psyche was in fact a 140-mile (226 km) wide, metal-rich asteroid orbiting in the main asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Mars Jupiter.

Psyche’s metal-heavy composition — which makes up between 30 and 60 percent of its total mass — sets it apart from the rest of the more than a million asteroids known to roam our solar system. Many astronomers now believe the strange body may be the exposed nickel-iron core of an ancient primordial planet whose outer layers were blown off 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 formed in the chaotic environment thought to have existed in space around our young star billions of years ago.

Normally, it would be impossible to observe a planet’s core directly. Earth’s metal-dominated heart, for example, is confined 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 academic studies.

Therefore, despite the fact that it orbits the Sun in the hostile environment of interplanetary space, Psyche’s core exposed seems almost too good to be true. By observing the planetary remains, astronomers have been able to 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 rendering 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 rendering 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 with and explore the extraterrestrial world. The spacecraft is powered by two solar panels, which together give the spacecraft an impressive span of 25 meters.

In addition to powering the array of scientific instruments mounted on board the spacecraft, 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 generate thrust.

The Psyche mission is currently undergoing rigorous testing before finally being launched on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.

However, the road to launch was anything but smooth. Psyche missed its original launch date of 2022 thanks to a series of technical setbacks, including problems with the probe’s flight control software. So severe were these problems that both an internal review and an independent investigation were set up to examine the technical issues surrounding the mission and determine whether it was still viable.

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

But on October 10th, NASA announced that the mission would not be aborted after all and that the agency instead aimed to launch the robotic spacecraft as early as October 10th. 10 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 for the October 2023 launch, the lone probe will travel through interplanetary space for about three years before using Mars’ gravity to radically change its trajectory in 2026. Assuming this is a success, mission operators expect the probe to meet with the asteroid Psyche in August 2029.

“I appreciate the hard work of the independent review board and the JPL-led mission success team,” said Thomas Zurbuchen, Associate Administrator of NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington. “The lessons of Psyche are implemented across our mission portfolio. I look forward to the scientific insights Psyche will provide during his lifetime and his promise to contribute to our understanding of the core of our own planet.”

Stay tuned IGN Science Page to keep up to date in the weird and wonderful world of science.

Anthony Wood is a freelance science writer for IGN

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin

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