In October 2023, NASA launched its long-awaited on-again, off-again Psyche mission. The spacecraft is on its way to study the metal-rich asteroid 16-Psyche, an M-type asteroid that could be the remnant core of a planetesimal that suffered a collision long ago. But understanding the giant, metal-rich asteroid isn’t the Psyche mission’s only goal.
It’s also testing a new laser communication technology.
On October 13th, at 10:19 AM Eastern (07:19 AM Pacific), NASA’s Psyche mission successfully launched atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Launch Pad 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida. This spacecraft is now on its way to rendezvous with the M-type asteroid of the same name, an object in the Main Asteroid Belt almost entirely composed of metal. This metallic asteroid is thought to be the remnant of a planetoid that lost its outer layers, leaving behind a core of iron-nickel and precious metals. By studying this object, scientists hope to learn more about the formation of rocky planets.
An independently appointed review board recently announced that NASA, their Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), and the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) have exceeded expectations in taking steps to ensure the successful launch of the metal-rich-asteroid-hunting Psyche mission this October. This comes after Psyche’s initial launch date was delayed from August 2022 due to late delivery of the spacecraft’s flight software and testing equipment, which prevented engineers from performing the necessary checkouts prior to launch.
NASA’s Psyche mission is back on track for launch and is now scheduled for a potential October 2023 launch date, according to an October 2022 statement from NASA. This comes after missing its originally planned launch date between August and October of 2022, and becoming subject to an independent review board, whose results were announced in November 2022.
NASA is reviewing its mission to visit the asteroid 16 Psyche. The Administration has convened a 15-member review board to examine the mission and its failure to meet the scheduled 2022 launch. The review began on July 19, and the board will present their findings to NASA and JPL in late September.
If you wanted to do a forensic study of the Solar System, you might head for the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. That’s where you can find ancient rocks from the Solar System’s early days. Out there in the cold vacuum of space, far from the Sun, asteroids are largely untouched by space weathering. Space scientists sometimes refer to asteroids—and their meteorite fragments that fall to Earth—as time capsules because of the evidence they hold.
The asteroid Psyche is especially interesting, and NASA is sending a mission to investigate the unusual chunk of rock. In advance of that mission, a team of researchers combined observations of Psyche from an array of telescopes and constructed a map of the asteroid’s surface.
Asteroid 16 Psyche, often sensationally dubbed the 10,000 quadrillion dollar asteroid due to its composition of valuable metals, may not be entirely what it seems. A new paper out of the University of Arizona suggests that the asteroid is possibly more porous, and less metallic, than previous studies indicated. It still certainly has a mostly metallic structure, but its composition is more complex – and that’s good news. Given the impracticality of space mining (in the near future anyway) 16 Psyche’s real value is scientific: planetary scientists think it is probably the exposed core of a protoplanet from the early days of the Solar System. Studying such an object up close would be enormously useful for understanding planet formation, and this paper is the latest attempt to understand its structure.
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.
Remember the asteroid Psyche? It’s the largest known asteroid in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It’s been in the news because of its unusual properties, and because NASA plans to launch a mission to Psyche in 2022.
Psyche, aka 16 Psyche, is unusual because it’s quite different from other asteroids. Psyche appears to be the remnant, exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet. Because of that, Psyche is a building block left over from the early Solar System, when planets were still forming. It’s like a planet without a crust.
It has been said that within the next quarter century, the world’s first trillionaires will emerge. It is also predicted that much of their wealth will stem from asteroid mining, a burgeoning space industry where minerals and volatile compounds will be harvested from Near-Earth Asteroids. This industry promises to flood the market with ample supplies of precious metals like gold, silver and platinum.
Beyond Earth, there’s the long-term prospect of the Main Asteroid Belt, which would provide even greater abundance. This is one of the reasons why NASA’s Psyche mission to explore the metal asteroid of the same name in the Main Belt has many people excited. While the exploration of this body could tell us much about the history of the Solar System, it could also be a source of riches someday.