Nestled in the large asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter lies 16 Psyche. This isn’t your average asteroid made up of mostly rock. Psyche is made almost entirely of nickel-iron metal. Which means we could be looking at the exposed iron core of a protoplanet.
NASA has a mission in the works to explore Psyche and learn more about the processes that created Earth and the other planets. Plus, it gives us a whole new world to image and probe.
The Psyche mission was originally slated to launch in 2023 and arrive at the asteroid in 2030. This week, NASA announced the launch date was moving up to the summer of 2022. A one year difference on the launch makes a huge difference on the journey. Instead of 2030, the Psyche orbiter will get there in 2026.
Traveling in space beyond Earth is all about timing. Mars launch windows are a perfect example of this. Every 26 months, the orbits of Mars and Earth line up for the best trajectory for spacecraft.
NASA went to the Psyche team to see if they could aim for an earlier launch to help with the trajectory time. The Psyche team got to work redesigning the spacecraft’s solar array. Engineers at Space Systems Loral (SSL) in Palo Alto, California ditched the four-panel array (stretching on either side) for a five-panel x-shaped design.
The NASA press release likens the new design to a sports car. A small spacecraft with a more powerful solar array slapped onto it.
“By increasing the size of the solar arrays, the spacecraft will have the power it needs to support the higher velocity requirements of the updated mission,” said SSL Psyche Program Manager Steve Scott.
Here’s what Psyche’s old solar array setup would have looked like (concept art).
And here’s the new x-shaped design (concept art).
Psyche Principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton echoed Scott’s comments and also pointed out the new design makes the mission more cost effective. “The biggest advantage is the excellent trajectory, which gets us there about twice as fast and is more cost effective,” said Elkins-Tanton. “We are all extremely excited that NASA was able to accommodate this earlier launch date. The world will see this amazing metal world so much sooner.”
Scientists believe Psyche is the leftover core of an early planet, but the mission is designed to confirm this. Psyche’s mission team will also explore how old the iron core is, how it formed and what the surface of the shiny 120-mile diameter world is like.
The team members will also be on the lookout for water after last year’s observations from the NASA Infrared Telescope Facility in Hawaii.
“We did not expect a metallic asteroid like Psyche to be covered by water and/or hydroxyl,” said Vishnu Reddy, one of the authors of the paper announcing the findings. “Metal-rich asteroids like Psyche are thought to have formed under dry conditions without the presence of water or hydroxyl, so we were puzzled by our observations at first.”
Reddy and his colleagues pointed the finger at asteroids delivering the unexpected water to the planet in its distant past.
Psyche is part of NASA’s Discovery Program. These missions run cheaper and are capped at $450 million. While the budget isn’t the biggest, the results can be stunning. Other Discovery missions include the MESSENGER mission to Mercury, the Dawn mission to Ceres and Kepler’s mission to discover worlds far beyond our solar system.