NASA gets Psyche-d, confirms launch of mission to metal asteroid will go ahead

NASA will send a spacecraft to the metal-rich asteroid Psyche in October 2023, following an internal review into mission development problems that delayed its rollout this year.

Psyche has a diameter of 226km and is made from iron and nickel. Its composition is what fascinates NASA experts hungry to explore an asteroid made from something other than rock or ice.

The launch window for the Psyche mission closed on October 11th, but the late arrival of specialised flight software and testing equipment prevented the launch team undertaking the tests required to proceed to take off.

As such, its planned 2022 launch did not proceed, despite the spacecraft being shipped from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) to the Kennedy Space Center.

Review into 2022 miss

As part of NASA’s Discovery project series, the Psyche mission is to be delivered within a hard budget. Discovery missions are selected for their ability to meet “high quality, high value” planetary science requirements.

The missed launch resulted in NASA establishing an internal enquiry and independent review into the delay. Following these, NASA has determined to proceed with the launch, with a target date of October next year for launch.

It has been a journey of change for the mission to get to the launch pad. In 2017, it was anticipated that the program would lift off midway through this year to arrive in 2026.

The asteroid, psyche
Psyche. Credit: ASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Instead, the delays push the mission’s timeline back to its originally projected rendezvous with the asteroid at the end of this decade.

NASA’s leaders are expecting the mission to be ready for its new launch window in 12 months, and for the spacecraft to eventually reach Psyche in August 2029.

“The lessons learned from Psyche will be implemented across our entire mission portfolio. I am excited about the science insights Psyche will provide during its lifetime and its promise to contribute to our understanding of our own planet’s core,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, NASA’s science mission directorate associate administrator.

New tech on board

When Psyche’s namesake spacecraft arrives in seven years’ time, scientists will be seeking to understand whether the asteroid is the stripped-back remnant of an early protoplanet core.

Given that planet cores are impossible to otherwise access, this mission could provide scientists with the best chance to understand what exists at the heart of worlds in our solar system.

Psyche Facts

  • It is around 2.5 to 3.3 Astronomical Units (AU) from the Sun. For reference, an AU is the distance between Earth and the Sun, approximately 150 million kilometres.
  • Earth orbits the sun five times in the time it takes Psyche to complete one trip around our nearest star.
  • But a day on Psyche takes under five hours.
  • Psyche has a diameter of 250 km. That’s roughly the distance from the Sydney Opera House to Parliament House in Canberra!
  • The Psyche mission spacecraft will travel around 450 million kilometres to react the asteroid

To do so, the car-sized Psyche spacecraft will be loaded with a high-resolution multispectral imager system containing cameras capable of capturing pictures at different wavelengths of the electromagnetic spectrum and enabling precise mapping of Psyche’s geology.

It will also contain gamma-ray and neutron spectrometers to detect the radiation emitted by Psyche’s surface metals and determine the composition of the asteroid.

And while those instruments are working on the surface make-up, a magnetometer will be measuring the asteroid’s magnetic field to collect data about the asteroid’s internal structure.

The investigation into Psyche’s failed launched is currently being finalised. NASA will release these investigations and its response once complete.

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