Another week, and then NASA will determine its path to a mysterious metallic object in space

Another week, and then NASA will determine its path to a mysterious metallic object in space

The final destination is the mysterious asteroid Psyche, which will hopefully tell us more about how Earth and other rocky planets formed.

The region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, known as the asteroid belt, is home to numerous space rocks, including an asteroid named Psyche. The psychologist is a strange world because he is largely made not of rock or ice, but of metal. For example, scientists assume that space rocks – just like Earth’s core – contain mainly iron and nickel. For many years, NASA has been planning to visit this mineral-rich world. This will happen eventually. Because the Psyche spacecraft will take to the skies next week and head toward the asteroid.

As of now, the spacecraft will launch from Launch Complex 39A at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida on Thursday, October 12, just after 4:15 p.m. Dutch time. A SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket will propel the Psyche spacecraft into space. Live coverage of the launch will begin at 3:15 PM ET on NASA TV’s media channel. You can also follow the launch on YouTube and Facebook, among others.

The mission to Psyche promises to be exciting. Meanwhile, scientists have already sent space probes to rocky asteroids and icy comets. But now, for the first time, a space probe departs for a mysterious metallic world. The first is correct. Researchers suspect that Psyche is likely composed of rocks and minerals, with metal making up between 30% and 60% of the total volume. In addition, experts believe that Psyche may contain large amounts of metal from the so-called core of the planet, one of the building blocks of our solar system. It appears that this asteroid is likely a survivor of several violent collisions that often occurred during the formation of our solar system.

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Artist’s impression of the asteroid Psyche. Image: NASA

The goal of the mission is to understand more about the origins of Earth and other rocky planets. Scientists suspect that Psyche may be the remains of the core of a planet-like body. In other words, the asteroid may represent the exposed core of a protoplanet, which has somehow lost its rocky outer layers. By studying the asteroid, astronomers hope to gain more knowledge about this process. In short, the Psyche spacecraft’s journey to the asteroid of the same name is a bit like a journey into the Earth’s interior. The mission could tell us a lot about the early history and composition of Earth’s core and the cores of other rocky planets in our solar system.

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The asteroid Psyche was discovered on March 17, 1852 by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis. As we mentioned, the space rock can be found in the asteroid belt located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. With a diameter of about 200 km, Psyche is one of the largest asteroids. Due to its high density, it is also one of the ten most massive asteroids between Mars and Jupiter. The name Psyche comes from Greek mythology, where Psyche is the lover of the god of love, Eros.

The mission is particularly special because it gives us the first opportunity to explore the “metallic core” that is usually hidden deep within Earth-like planets. For example, the Earth’s core is inaccessible and hidden away beneath the rocky mantle and crust. Therefore, the asteroid Psyche will provide us with a unique view of the building blocks of the planet and open the door to studying a world that was not known before. A trip to Psyche will give us a rare look at the turbulent history of collisions and the accretion of matter responsible for the formation of planets like ours. But even if scientists conclude that Psyche is not an exposed core, the asteroid is still pretty cool. In this case, it could be an even rarer type of primitive object in our solar system, something that has never been seen before.

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NASA also hopes to reveal more of Psyche’s properties. What we know so far is that the asteroid is remarkably large, with a diameter of no less than 210 kilometers. But that’s where it ends. When we look at images from telescopes, Psyche appears as a faint dot that is difficult to locate from Earth. While scientists have been able to gather some information from radar data, such as that the asteroid is somewhat shaped like a potato and that it is rotating on its side, much of the mystery surrounding Psyche remains. We won’t really know what this large space rock looks like until the probe photographs it up close for the first time.

Did you know…
…Researchers have discovered that gravity on Psyche’s surface is much weaker than that on Earth – and even weaker than that on the Moon? In Psyche, lifting a car would be like lifting a big dog.

But that will take some time. The spacecraft is expected to travel for about six years and not reach the asteroid until 2029. After launching from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, the spacecraft will fly by our closest neighbor Mars about seven months later. The probe will use Mars’ gravity to rush toward the asteroid, hundreds of millions of miles away. In total, the ship travels about 3.6 billion kilometers.

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft takes a spiral route to asteroid Psyche, seen here. The image also shows the main milestones of the main mission. Image: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Upon its arrival, the spacecraft will orbit the asteroid for about 26 months and study it closely using various instruments, such as multispectral imaging, a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer, and a magnetometer.

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So we will have to be patient for a while before the first results appear. But when the time comes, we can prepare for a real spectacle. The probe will orbit the asteroid for two years to take pictures, map its surface, and collect data to determine Psyche’s composition. Once the spacecraft sees the asteroid, it will immediately send images back to Earth. And then, finally, we’ll find out what this faint, hazy spot that we currently observe through our telescopes looks like. For the first time, details of the surface of this mysterious and distant world will be revealed.

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Researchers are eagerly awaiting the next launch next week. “Every time new research findings on Psyche are published, more questions seem to arise,” says researcher Anicia Arredondo. “The asteroid appears to be very complex and likely holds many surprises. The possibility of the unexpected is one of the most exciting aspects of studying a hitherto unknown object. We look forward to gaining deeper insight into the origins of Psyche.”

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