That’s So Metal. NASA’s Psyche Mission is Now Under Construction

In August of 2022, NASA will send a robotic spacecraft to the Main Asteroid Belt to explore a truly unique object: a metal asteroid. This object is known as 16 Psyche, is one of the largest asteroids in the Belt, and is composed almost entirely of iron and nickel. The most widely-accepted theory is that it used to be the core of a protoplanet in the Belt that experienced a massive collision that sent its rocky crust and mantle into space.

The spacecraft, also named Psyche, was submitted as part of a call for proposals for NASA’s Discovery Program in 2015 and was selected as the 14th Discovery mission by 2017. Most recently, the spacecraft passed a crucial milestone by moving from the planning and designing phase to the manufacturing phase, where all of the hardware that will allow it to make the journey is being assembled.

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New Images of the “Golf Ball” Asteroid Pallas

In 1802, German astronomer Heinrich Olbers observed what he thought was a planet within the Main Asteroid Belt. In time, astronomers would come to name this body Pallas, an alternate name for the Greek warrior goddess Athena. The subsequent discovery of many more asteroids in the Main Belt would lead to Pallas being reclassified as a large asteroid, the third-largest in the Belt after Ceres and Vesta.

For centuries, astronomers have sought to get a better look at Pallas to learn more about its size, shape, and composition. As of the turn of the century, astronomers had come to conclude that it was an oblate spheroid (an elongated sphere). Thanks to a new study by an international team, the first detailed images of Pallas have finally been taken, which reveal that its shape is more akin to a “golf ball” – i.e. heavily dimpled.

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How Do We Colonize Ceres?

Welcome back to our series on Colonizing the Solar System! Today, we take a look at the largest asteroid/planetoid in the Main Belt – Ceres!

Between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter lies the Solar System’s Main Asteroid Belt. Within this region, it is estimated that there are over 150 million objects that measure 100 meters (330 ft) or more in diameter. The largest of these is the dwarf planet Ceres (aka. 1 Ceres), the only body in the Main Belt that is large enough – 940 km (585 mi) in diameter – to have undergone hydrostatic equilibrium (become spherical).

Because of its important location and the amenities this dwarf planet itself possesses, there are those who have proposed that we establish a colony on Ceres (and even some who’ve explored the idea of terraforming it). This could serve as a base for asteroid mining ventures as well as an outpost of human civilization, one which could facilitate the expansion of humanity farther out into the Solar System.

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Asteroid Hygiea is Round Enough That it Could Qualify as a Dwarf Planet, the Smallest in the Solar System

Within the Main Asteroid Belt, there are a number of larger bodies that have defied traditional classification. The largest among them is Ceres, which is followed by Vesta, Pallas, and Hygeia. Until recently, Ceres was thought to be the only object in the Main Belt large enough to undergo hydrostatic equilibrium – where an object is sufficiently massive that its gravity causes it to collapse into a roughly spherical shape.

However, it now seems that there is another body in the Main Belt that has earned the designation of “dwarf planet”. Using data from the Spectro-Polarimetric High-contrast Exoplanet REsearch (SPHERE) instrument at the Very Large Telescope (VLT), an international team of astronomers found compelling evidence that Hygeia is actually round, making it the smallest dwarf planet in the Solar System.

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Most of the Solar System Should be a Protected Wilderness. One-Eighth Left for Mining and Resource Exploitation

There is no doubt that our world is in the midst of a climate crisis. Between increasing levels of carbon dioxide in our atmosphere, rising temperatures and sea levels, ocean acidification, species extinctions, waste production, diminishing supplies of fresh water, drought, severe weather, and all of the resulting fallout, the “Anthropocene” is not shaping up too well.

It is little wonder then why luminaries like Stephen Hawking, Buzz Aldrin, and Elon Musk believe that we must look off-world to ensure our survival. However, there are those who caution that in so doing, humans will simply shift our burdens onto new locations. Addressing this possibility, two distinguished researchers recently published a paper where they suggest that we should set aside “wilderness” spaces” in our Solar System today.

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Steam-Powered Spacecraft Could Explore the Asteroid Belt Forever, Refueling Itself in Space

The era of renewed space exploration has led to some rather ambitious proposals. While many have been on the books for decades, it has only been in recent years that some of these plans have become technologically feasible. A good example is asteroid mining, where robotic spacecraft would travel to Near-Earth Asteroids and the Main Asteroid Belt to harvest minerals and other resources.

At the moment, one of the main challenges is how these craft would be able to get around and refuel once they are in space. To address this, the New York-based company Honeybee Robotics has teemed up with the University of Central Florida (UFC) to develop a steam-powered robotic spacecraft. The company recently released a demonstration video that shows their prototype World is Not Enough (WINE) “steam hopper” in action.

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Ceres Rolled Over at Some Point in the Past

In 2007, the Dawn mission launched from Earth and began making its way towards two historic rendezvous in the Main Asteroid Belt. The purpose of this mission was to learn more about the history of the early Solar System by studying the two largest protoplanets in the Main Belt – Ceres and Vesta – which have remained intact since their formation.

In 2015, the Dawn mission arrived in orbit around Ceres and began sending back data that has shed light on the protoplanet’s surface, composition and interior structure. Based on mission data, Pasquale Tricarico – the senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute (PSI) – has also determined that the Ceres also experienced an indirect polar reorientation in the past, where its pole rolled approximately 36° off-axis.

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Ceres Has Even More Organic Molecules on it Than Previously Thought

In March of 2015, NASA’s Dawn mission became the first spacecraft to visit the protoplanet Ceres, the largest body in the Main Asteroid Belt. It was also the first spacecraft to visit a dwarf planet, having arrived a few months before the New Horizons mission made its historic flyby of Pluto. Since that time, Dawn has revealed much about Ceres, which in turn is helping scientists to understand the early history of the Solar System.

Last year, scientists with NASA’s Dawn mission made a startling discovery when they detected complex chains of carbon molecules – organic material essential for life – in patches on the surface of Ceres. And now, thanks to a new study conducted by a team of researchers from Brown University (with the support of NASA), it appears that these patches contain more organic material than previously thought.

The new findings were recently published in the scientific journal Geophysical Research Letters under the title “New Constraints on the Abundance and Composition of Organic Matter on Ceres“. The study was led by Hannah Kaplan, a postdoctoral researcher at Brown University, with the assistance of Ralph E. Milliken and Conel M. O’D. Alexander – an assistant professor at Brown University and a researcher from the Carnegie Institution of Washington, respectively.

A new analysis of Dawn mission data suggests those organics could be more plentiful than originally thought. Credit: NASA/Rendering by Hannah Kaplan

The organic materials in question are known as “aliphatics”, a type of compound where carbon atoms form open chains that are commonly bound with oxygen, nitrogen, sulfur and chlorine. To be fair, the presence of organic material on Ceres does not mean that the body supports life since such molecules can arise from non-biological processes.

Aliphatics have also been detected on other planets in the form of methane (on Mars and especially on Saturn’s largest moon, Titan). Nevertheless, such molecules remains an essential building block for life and their presence at Ceres raises the question of how they got there. As such, scientists are interested in how it and other life-essential elements (like water) has been distributed throughout the Solar System.

Since Ceres is abundant in both organic molecules and water, it raises some intriguing possibilities about the protoplanet. The results of this study and the methods they used could also provide a template for interpreting data for future missions. As Dr. Kaplan – who led the research while completing her PhD at Brown – explained in a recent Brown University press release:

“What this paper shows is that you can get really different results depending upon the type of organic material you  use to compare with and interpret the Ceres data. That’s important not only for Ceres, but also for missions that will soon explore asteroids that may also contain organic material.”

Enhanced color-composite image, made with data from the framing camera aboard NASA’s Dawn spacecraft, shows the area around Ernutet crater. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/MPS/DLR/IDA

The original discovery of organics on Ceres took place in 2017 when an international team of scientists analyzed data from the Dawn mission’s Visible and Infrared Mapping Spectrometer (VIRMS). The data provided by this instrument indicated the presence of these hydrocarbons in a 1000 km² region around of the Ernutet crater, which is located in the northern hemisphere of Ceres and measures about 52 km (32 mi) in diameter.

To get an idea of how abundant the organic compounds were, the original research team compared the VIRMS data to spectra obtained in a laboratory from Earth rocks with traces of organic material. From this, they concluded that between 6 and 10% of the spectral signature detected on Ceres could be explained by organic matter.

They also hypothesized that the molecules were endogenous in origin, meaning that they originated from inside the protoplanet. This was consistent with previous surveys that showed signs of hydorthermal activity on Ceres, as well others that have detected ammonia-bearing hydrated minerals, water ice, carbonates, and salts – all of which suggested that Ceres had an interior environment that can support prebiotic chemistry.

But for the sake of their study, Kaplan and her colleagues re-examined the data using a different standard. Instead of relying on Earth rocks for comparison, they decided to examine an extraterrestrial source. In the past, some meteorites – such as carbonaceous chondrites – have been shown to contain organic material that is slightly different than what we are familiar with here on Earth.

Artist’s rendition of the Dawn mission on approach to the protoplanet Ceres. Credit: NASA/JPL

After re-examining the spectral data using this standard, Kaplan and her team determined that the organics found on Ceres were distinct from their terrestrial counterparts. As Kaplan explained:

“What we find is that if we model the Ceres data using extraterrestrial organics, which may be a more appropriate analog than those found on Earth, then we need a lot more organic matter on Ceres to explain the strength of the spectral absorption that we see there. We estimate that as much as 40 to 50 percent of the spectral signal we see on Ceres is explained by organics. That’s a huge difference compared to the six to 10 percent previously reported based on terrestrial organic compounds.”

If the concentrations of organic material are indeed that high, then it raises new questions about where it came from. Whereas the original discovery team claimed it was endogenous in origin, this new study suggests that it was likely delivered by an organic-rich comet or asteroid. On the one hand, the high concentrations on the surface of Ceres are more consistent with a comet impact.

This is due to the fact that comets are known to have significantly higher internal abundances of organics compared with primitive asteroids, similar to the 40% to 50% figure this study suggests for these locations on Ceres. However, much of those organics would have been destroyed due to the heat of the impact, which leaves the question of how they got there something of a mystery.

Dawn spacecraft data show a region around the Ernutet crater where organic concentrations have been discovered (labeled “a” through “f”). The color coding shows the strength of the organics absorption band, with warmer colors indicating the highest concentrations. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/UCLA/ASI/INAF/MPS/DLR/IDA

If they did arise endogenously, then there is the question of how such high concentrations emerged in the northern hemisphere. As Ralph Milliken explained:

“If the organics are made on Ceres, then you likely still need a mechanism to concentrate it in these specific locations or at least to preserve it in these spots. It’s not clear what that mechanism might be. Ceres is clearly a fascinating object, and understanding the story and origin of organics in these spots and elsewhere on Ceres will likely require future missions that can analyze or return samples.”

Given that the Main Asteroid Belt is composed of material left over from the formation of the Solar System, determining where these organics came from is expected to shed light on how organic molecules were distributed throughout the Solar System early in its history. In the meantime, the researchers hope that this study will inform upcoming sample missions to near-Earth asteroids (NEAs), which are also thought to host water-bearing minerals and organic compounds.

These include the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa2, which is expected to arrive at the asteroid Ryugu in several weeks’ time, and NASA’s OSIRIS-REx mission – which is due to reach the asteroid Bennu in August. Dr. Kaplan is currently a science team member with the OSIRIS-REx mission and hopes that the Dawn study she led will help the OSIRIS-REx‘s mission characterize Bennu’s environment.

“I think the work that went into this study, which included new laboratory measurements of important components of primitive meteorites, can provide a framework of how to better interpret data of asteroids and make links between spacecraft observations and samples in our meteorite collection,” she said. “As a new member to the OSIRIS-REx team, I’m particularly interested in how this might apply to our mission.”

The New Horizons mission is also expected to rendezvous with the Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) 2014 MU69 on January 1st, 2019. Between these and other studies of “ancient objects” in our Solar System – not to mention interstellar asteroids that are being detected for the first time – the history of the Solar System (and the emergence of life itself) is slowly becoming more clear.

Further Reading: Brown University, Geophysical Research Letters

Mission to Metal World Takes a Big Step Forward with Thruster Test

As NASA sets its sight on the next generation of space exploration, one area of focus is on missions that can teach us more about our Solar System. This was a major priority during the thirteenth round of NASA’s Discovery Program, which put out the call for proposals back in February of 2014. One of the proposals to make the cut was the Psyche mission, which will send an orbiter to the asteroid of the same name in 2o22.

This mission is unique in that it will entail visiting an asteroid that is entirely composed of metal, which scientists believe is the remnant core of an early planet. For the sake of the mission, NASA’s Glenn Research Center has been working hard to develop a cutting-edge, next-generation thruster that balances power with fuel efficiency. This thruster was recently subjected to tests designed to simulate its journey through space.

Originally discovered in 1852, the object known as 16 Psyche has been a source of fascination ever since astronomers were able to determine its composition. Unlike other asteroids that are largely carbonaceous (C-type), silicate (S-type), or composed of rock and metal (M-type), Psyche is the only asteroid to date that has been found to have an exposed nickel-iron surface.

Because of its unique nature, scientists have theorized that the metal asteroid is actually the core of a Mars-sized planet that formed during the early Solar System. This planet, they theorize, lost its outer layers after experiencing a massive collision, thus leaving an exposed core behind. The study of this asteroid is therefore expected to reveal a great deal about the interior of terrestrial planets and what powers their magnetic fields.

As David Oh, the mission’s lead project systems engineer, said in a recent NASA press release:

“Psyche is a unique body because it is, by far, the largest metal asteroid out there; it’s about the size of Massachusetts. By exploring Psyche, we’ll learn about the formation of the planets, how planetary cores are formed and, just as important, we’ll be exploring a new type of world. We’ve looked at worlds made of rock, ice and of gas, but we’ve never had an opportunity to look at a metal world, so this is brand new exploration in the classic style of NASA.”

The Psyche missions brings together researchers from Arizona State University and experts from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. For the sake of designing the engine that would send their spacecraft to its destination, the joint Arizona-JPL team turned to NASA’s Glenn Research Center, which has been conducting research into Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) for years.

SEP thrusters are essentially ion-engines that rely on electrically-charged inert gases (like xenon) to provide thrust. Like all Hall Effect ion-engines, this allows the thruster to provide a gentle, non-stop stream of thrust that gradually pushes a spacecraft up to greater and greater speeds. Such a system is ideal for deep-space missions where fuel-efficiency is a must.

As Carol Tolbert, the project manager for Psyche thruster testing at NASA Glenn, explained:

“For deep space missions, the type and amount of fuel required to propel a spacecraft is an important factor for mission planners. A SEP system, like the one used for this mission, operates more efficiently than a conventional chemical propulsion system, which would be impractical for this type of mission.”

The Psyche mission, which will be built jointly by JPL and Space Systems Loral (SSL), will use a SPT-140 Hall effect thruster that relies on solar power to provide electrical charges. The reduced fuel mass of this thruster will allow the mission to enter orbit around the metal asteroid while also providing additional space for the mission’s suite of scientific instruments.

These include a multispectral imager, a magnetometer, and a gamma-ray spectrometer, all of which will help the science team to obtain vital information on the asteroid’s origin, composition and history. The SEP also provides flexibility and robustness in the mission flight plan, since it will allow Psyche to get to its destination with greater speed and efficiency than conventional propulsion would allow for.

To test how the thruster performs during low-power operations, engineers at NASA Glenn placed the thruster into a space environment chamber designed to generate the low-pressures and temperatures it will encounter in space. As Carol explained:

“This mission will be the first to use a Hall effect thruster system beyond lunar orbit, so the tests here at Glenn, which had never been conducted before, were needed to ensure the thruster could perform and operate as expected in the deep space environment.”

Artist’s impression of the surface of 16 Psyche. Credit: Arizona State University / NASA

For decades, the Glenn center has used its compliment of chambers to simulate the conditions missions will encounter in space. However, this test is the first time that engineers have sought to determine how an SEP Hall-Effect thruster would fare. As Oh explained, this test is very important since it will simulate precisely how the spacecraft will fly, and the results have been encouraging so far:

“Glenn has a world-class facility that allowed us to go to very low pressures to simulate the environment the spacecraft will operate in and better understand how our thrusters will perform around Psyche. At first glance, the results confirm our predictions regarding how the thruster will perform, and it looks like everything is working as expected. But, we will continue to refine our models by doing more analysis.”

As the team works towards the mission’s proposed launch – which is scheduled for August 2022 – they will use the data collected at NASA Glenn to update their thruster modeling and incorporate it into mission trajectories. Once the spacecraft reaches its destination – the planned arrival will take place by 2026 – it is expected to reveal a great deal about this unique asteroid.

This data is also likely to teach us much about the history of the Asteroid Belt and the Solar System. If indeed 16 Psyche is the remnant of a Mars-sized planet that formed in the Main Belt, it could cause astronomers to rethink their notions of how the Solar System formed and evolved.

Further Reading: NASA

New Study Says Primordial Asteroid Belt was Empty

Between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter lies a disk of rocks, small bodies and planetoids known as the Main Asteroid Belt. The existence of this Belt was first theorized in the 18th century, based on observations that indicated a regular pattern in the orbits of Solar planets. By the following century, regular discoveries began to be made in the space between Mars and Jupiter, prompting astronomers to theorize where the Belt came from.

For a long time, scientists debated whether the Belt was the remains of a planet that broke up, or remnants left over from the early system that failed to become a planet. But a new study by a pair of astronomers from the University of Bordeaux has offered a different take. According to their theory, the Asteroid Belt began as an empty space which was gradually filled by rocks and debris over time.

For the sake of their study – which recently appeared in the journal Science Advances under the title “The Empty Primordial Asteroid Belt” – astronomers Sean N. Raymond and Andre Izidoro of the University of Bordeaux considered the current scientific consensus, which is that the Main Belt was once much more densely packed and became depleted of mass over time.

Artist’s impression of how the Asteroid Belt could have become filled with C-type and S-type asteroids over time. Credit: Sean Raymond/

As Dr. Raymond explained to Universe Today via email:

“The standard picture is that the building blocks of the Solar System — what we call planetesimals, generally thought of as 10-100 km-scale bodies — started off in a smooth distribution across the Sun’s planet-forming disk. The problem is, that puts a couple of times Earth’s mass in the asteroid belt, where there is now less than a thousandth of an Earth mass. The challenge in this picture is therefore to understand how the belt lost 99.9% of its mass (but not 100%).”

To this, Dr. Raymond and Dr. Izodoro considered the alternate possibility that perhaps the primordial belt started as an empty space. In accordance with this theory, there were no planetesimals – i.e. Ceres, Vesta, Palla, and Hygeia – orbiting between Mars and Jupiter as there are today. This began as a thought experiment which, as Dr. Raymond admits, sounded a bit crazy at first.

However, he and Dr. Izodoro soon realized that several protoplanetary disks like the one they were envisioning had already been discovered in other star systems. For example, in 2014, the Atacama Large Millimeter/submillimeter Array in Chile photographed a planet-forming disk of dust and gas (aka, a protoplanetary disk) in the HL Tauri system, a very young star located about 450 light years away in the Taurus constellation.

As the image (shown below) revealed, the dust in this disk is not smooth, but consists of several broad regions and less dense regions. “The exact explanation for the structure in this disk is still debated but pretty much all models invoke drifting dust,” said Raymond. “And planetesimals form when drifting dust piles up into sufficiently-dense rings. So, dust rings should (we think) produce rings of planetesimals.”

Image of the HL Tau planet-forming disk taken with the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. Credit: ALMA (ESO/NAOJ/NRAO)

To test this hypothesis, they constructed a model of the early Solar System which included an empty Main Belt region. As they moved the simulation forward, they found that the formation of the disk was related to the formation of the rocky planets, and would gradually become what we see today. As Raymond indicated:

“What we found is that the growth of the rocky planets is not 100% efficient. A fraction of planetesimals is gravitationally kicked outward and stranded in the asteroid belt. The orbits of captured bodies matches closely those of S-type asteroids. The efficiency of implanting S-types in the belt is quite low, only about 1 in 1000.  However, recall that the belt is almost empty.  There is a total of about 4 hundred-thousandths of an Earth-mass in S-types in the present-day belt.  Our simulations typically implanted a few times that amount. Given that some are lost during later evolution of the Solar System, this matches both the distribution and amount of S-type asteroids in the belt.

They then combined this model with previous work which looked at the growth of Jupiter and Saturn and how this would effect the Solar System. In this study, they showed the C-type asteroids would be deposited in the Belt over time, and that these asteroids would also be responsible for delivering water to Earth. When they combined the distribution of implanted C-type and S-type asteroids with their current work, they found that it matched the present-day distribution of asteroids.

Interestingly enough, this is not the first theory Raymond and Izodoro have come up with to address the Asteroid Belt’s missing mass. Back in 2011, Raymond was a co-author on the study that proposed the Grand Tack model, in which he and his colleagues proposed that Jupiter migrated from its original orbit after it formed. At first, the planet moved closer to Mars’ current orbit, then back out towards where it is today.

Diagram comparing two possible explanations for how the Asteroid Belt formed. Credit: Sean Raymond/

In the process, the asteroid belt would have been cleared, and Mars would have been deprived of mass, thus leading to its diminutive size – relative to Earth and Venus. This resolved a key problem with classical theories of Asteroid Belt formation, which was known as the “small Mars problem”. In short, all previous simulations of Solar planet formation tended to produce Mars analogs that were far more massive than Mars is today.

However, the Grand Tack hypothesis still contained theoretical uncertainties, which prompted Raymond and Izodoro to consider the the Empty Primordial Belt theory. “Our new result lends credence to an alternate model in which planetesimals never formed in the asteroid belt at all,” he said. “Different pieces of this new alternative model have been developed in recent years, and I think they add up to make a solid alternative to the Grand Tack model.”

Looking ahead, Raymond says that he and Izodoro hope to conduct further studies and simulations to see if either theory can be confirmed or falsified. “That’s the next step,” he said. “Until the next (seemingly-)crazy idea!”

Further Reading: Science Advances, PlanetPlanet