NASA mission to study asteroid to happen four years earlier than planned

25 May 2017

Artist's concept of 16 Psyche. Image: NASA

NASA has said the mission to analyse asteroid 16 Psyche has been moved forward another year, meaning it will be taking place four years earlier than first anticipated.

Earlier this year, NASA revealed a plan to send a craft to examine 16 Psyche, an asteroid orbiting the sun in a trajectory between Mars and Jupiter. Interest in the mission has been building ever since.

Made almost entirely of nickel-iron metal, the enormous piece of space debris could have a monetary value of up to $10 quintillion if it were captured and returned to Earth, estimates have suggested.

Now NASA has revealed that the Discovery mission – as it is officially called – has been brought forward a year, meaning it will launch four years sooner than originally announced.

The mission is now expected to launch in the summer of 2022, and with the craft arriving at the asteroid in 2026.

A revised trajectory will make the trip more efficient, eliminating the need for an Earth gravity assist and ultimately shortening the cruise time.

Additionally, this new trajectory helps the craft stay further away from the sun, thereby reducing the amount of thermal protection needed. It is still planned that the craft will receive a gravity assist from Mars in 2023.

“The biggest advantage is the excellent trajectory, which gets us there about twice as fast and is more cost effective,” said the mission’s principal investigator, Lindy Elkins-Tanton.

“We are all extremely excited that NASA was able to accommodate this earlier launch date. The world will see this amazing metal world so much sooner.”

Another change to the mission will be the overhaul to its design and construction, currently being undertaken by Space Systems Loral in California.

This includes boosting the number of solar panels, from an array of four in a straight line to five in a more powerful x-shaped design, making it travel faster in space.

NASA has said that this mission will help us understand whether Psyche is the core of an early planet or whether it bears any resemblance to our planet’s own core.

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic