NASA is launching a mission to weird metal asteroid Psyche next year

NASA has revealed more about its plans to visit the strange metal asteroid Psyche, as part of a mission launching next year.

Set to launch in August 2022, the Psyche spacecraft will travel to the strange metal asteroid also called Psyche, located in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. This asteroid has been found to be composed of mostly nickel and iron. That makes it highly unusual, as most asteroids are primarily rock, so the researchers are keen to understand whether Psyche could be the core of what was a forming planet.

This illustration depicts NASA's Psyche spacecraft.
This illustration, updated as of March 2021, depicts NASA’s Psyche spacecraft. Set to launch in August 2022, the Psyche mission will explore a metal-rich asteroid of the same name that lies in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

“If it turns out to be part of a metal core, it would be part of the very first generation of early cores in our solar system,” said Arizona State University’s Lindy Elkins-Tanton, principal investigator of the Psyche mission, in a statement. “But we don’t really know, and we won’t know anything for sure until we get there. We wanted to ask primary questions about the material that built planets. We’re filled with questions and not a lot of answers. This is real exploration.”

To find out more about the asteroid, Psyche will be armed with instruments like a magnetometer for measuring magnetic fields and spectrometers which use light to determine what the asteroid is made of.

After its launch next year, it’ll take several years for the spacecraft to travel the 1.5 billion miles to its asteroid target. It is expected that the Psyche spacecraft will arrive at its asteroid in late 2025, before entering orbit around it in January 2026. It will start off at a safe, relatively distant orbit for 435 miles from the asteroid’s surface and will move closer to the asteroid over time so the team can gather more detailed data.

“Humans have always been explorers,” Elkins-Tanton said. “We’ve always set out from where we are to find out what is over that hill. We always want to go farther; we always want to imagine. It’s inherent in us. We don’t know what we’re going to find, and I’m expecting us to be entirely surprised.”

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