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SpaceX Launch of NASA’s Psyche Mission to Bizarre Metal Asteroid Just 1 Month Away

A NASA probe will start winging its way toward a bizarre metal asteroid less than a month from now, if all goes according to plan.

The agency’s Psyche spacecraft is scheduled to lift off atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Oct. 5 (though the launch window extends through Oct. 25, with each day offering one opportunity).

Psyche will arrive at its namesake — a 170-mile-wide (280 kilometers) metallic object in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter — in the summer of 2029, providing a feast for scientists and lots of eye candy for space fans. 

“I am so looking forward to seeing those first images,” Lori Glaze, director of NASA’s Planetary Sciences Division, said during a news conference on Wednesday (Sept. 6). “They are going to be spectacular, when we finally get to see what this metal asteroid looks like up close.”

Next month’s launch will be a milestone moment for SpaceX as well: It will mark the first Falcon Heavy liftoff for NASA, as well as the rocket’s first interplanetary mission. The Falcon Heavy, which is the second-most powerful rocket currently in operation (after NASA’s Space Launch System), has lifted off just seven times to date, most recently on July 28.

Psyche was supposed to be aloft already. The original plan called for launch in the fall of 2022, but problems with the spacecraft’s flight software led to a one-year delay.

Those kinks have all been worked out, say mission team members, who are eager for the upcoming liftoff.

“It’s getting increasingly real,” Henry Stone, Psyche’s project manager at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, said in a statement on Wednesday. “We are counting the days. The team is more than ready to send this spacecraft off on its journey, and it’s very exciting.”

Liftoff will kick off a long cruise phase for Psyche, which will use highly efficient solar electric propulsion to make its way to the asteroid belt. A “gravity assist” flyby of Mars in May 2026 will boost Psyche’s velocity, helping it reach its target space rock in late July 2029.

The probe will then study the asteroid up close for 26 months, circling lower and lower until it orbits a mere 40 miles (64 kilometers) above Psyche’s surface. Scientists don’t know what that surface looks like — they’ve never gotten a good look at Psyche or any other metal asteroid — but they have some intriguing ideas.

“One possibility is that the metal surface of Psyche is covered by tiny, spiky, cup-shaped micrometeorite impacts into metal, and little tiny grains of metal that flew off of them when they happened,” the mission’s principal investigator, Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University, said during Wednesday’s press conference.

“We expect part of the surface to be metal and part of it not to be metal,” she added. “What’s the non-metal part? Rock? Sulfur? We don’t really know. I would say that the only thing we’re pretty darn confident of is that there’s metal there, and the metal is going to be similar to metal meteorites.”

The high-gain antenna of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft takes center stage in this photo, captured at the Astrotech Space Operations facility near the agency’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. (Image credit: NASA/Frank Michaux)

And Psyche has a lot of metal — so much, in fact, that it would be worth about $10 quintillion here on Earth, Elkins-Tanton calculated a few years ago. But that figure is not to be taken seriously, she stressed on Wednesday.

“We have zero technology as a species to bring Psyche back to Earth. And if we did, it would likely be a catastrophic mistake,” Elkins-Tanton said. 

“Let’s say we were able to actually bring Psyche back. Then it would flood the metals market, and it would literally be worth nothing,” she added. “So, calculating the value of it is a fun intellectual exercise with no truth to it. We are not going there to mine an asteroid.”

Rather, the $1.2 billion Psyche mission will take the asteroid’s measure for science’s sake. It will study the space rock using three dedicated instruments — a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer, a multispectral imager and a magnetometer. The spacecraft will also use its onboard radio telecommunications system to conduct “gravity science,” learning more about Psyche’s internal structure and composition.

Such work will reveal a great deal about the asteroid, which scientists think may be the exposed core of a protoplanet — the raw materials from which rocky planets such as Earth and Mars are made.

“The first mission to explore an asteroid with a surface that contains substantial amounts of metal rather than rock or ice, Psyche seeks to better understand iron cores, an unexplored building block of planet formation,” NASA officials wrote in a mission description.

“The mission will be the first to directly examine the interior of a previously layered planetary body, which they expect will shed additional light on how Earth and other rocky planets formed,” they added.

The 6,056-pound (2,747 kilograms) Psyche probe also carries a ride-along NASA technology demonstration called DSOC (short for “Deep Space Optical Communications”).

DSOC will use a laser system to send and receive data during the mission’s long cruise phase out to the asteroid belt. To date, such high-capacity optical communications systems have been used on spacecraft only as far away as the moon. DSOC aims to extend that reach much farther, into very deep space.

“We’re very excited about launch and looking forward to the important lessons learned, which will in the future enable human missions to Mars and the use of very high-resolution instruments,” Abi Biswas, project technologist for DSOC at JPL, said during Wednesday’s press conference.

Source : Space