What you need to know about NASA’s Psyche mission

16 Oct 2023

An illustration of the metal-rich asteroid called Psyche. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU/Peter Rubin

The agency’s Psyche spacecraft recently launched to make a six-year voyage to a metal-rich asteroid, but what does it aim to accomplish?

NASA recently began its Psyche mission, which is the agency’s first attempt to send a spacecraft to a metal-rich asteroid.

This is the 14th mission under NASA’s Discovery programme, which is focused on learning more about our solar system through various exploration missions.

The Psyche spacecraft successfully launched on Friday 13 October, to begin a journey of roughly six years to the Psyche asteroid.

What does Psyche aim to accomplish?

The mission aims to investigate a 279km-wide asteroid that is deemed to be ‘metal class’, being high in iron-nickle content. The composition of this asteroid means scientists believe it could be the partial core of a planetesimal, which is a building block of an early planet.

There is also a theory that this asteroid is the leftover piece of a different kind of iron-rich body that formed somewhere within our solar system.

The Psyche spacecraft is expected to enter the orbit of this asteroid by August 2029. At this point, a 26-month science investigation will begin, with the goal of uncovering new data about these types of asteroids. The data could help scientists understand more about how the cores of planets are created.

This spacecraft will also be used to test NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications technology. This is a concept that uses lasers in deep space for communications and could boost future exploration missions by providing more bandwidth to transmit data than traditional radio communications.

“The Psyche mission could provide humanity with new information about planet formation while testing technology that can be used on future NASA missions,” said NASA administrator Bill Nelson. “As Asteroid Autumn continues, so does NASA’s commitment to exploring the unknown and inspiring the world through discovery.”

When was the Psyche asteroid discovered?

The asteroid was first discovered in 1852 by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis. It is sometimes called 16 Psyche as it was the 16th asteroid to be discovered, according to NASA.

It is named after the goddess of the soul in ancient Greek mythology and orbits the Sun between Mars and Jupiter, in the outer part of the main asteroid belt between those two planets.

NASA said the asteroid is “irregular and potato-like” in shape and also appears to be highly dense based on observations. While there are contradictions in the data, analysis suggests that metal makes up between 30pc to 60pc of the asteroid’s total volume.

These observations were made through radar observations and by measuring how the asteroid gains or re-radiates heat.

How will the spacecraft make the journey?

The Psyche spacecraft has to make a 3.6bn km journey to begin orbiting the strange asteroid. NASA said this journey is being made through solar electric propulsion, which expels charged atoms of the neutral gas xenon to create a gentle thrust.

The spacecraft will also use the gravity of Mars as a slingshot, to speed itself along the journey.

“I’m so proud of the Psyche team, who overcame many challenges on their way to this exciting day,” said NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory director Laurie Leshin. “Now the real fun begins as we race toward asteroid Psyche to unlock the secrets of how planets form and evolve.”

Where is the spacecraft currently?

NASA said that the first 100 days of the mission will be a commissioning phase, which is done to ensure all of the spacecraft’s flight systems are healthy. The priority is ensuring that the electric thrusters are ready to begin a continuous thrust.

In roughly three weeks, the spacecraft will be about 7.5m km from Earth. At that point, NASA will begin its first test of its laser communications.

NASA also has a live feed showing where the Psyche spacecraft is on its journey. This feed suggests the spacecraft is already further from the Earth than the James Webb Space Telescope.

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Leigh Mc Gowran is a journalist with Silicon Republic