NASA launches spacecraft on first-ever mission to mysterious and rare metal asteroid

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft embarked on a momentous journey on Friday, launching into space on a six-year mission to explore a rare metal-covered asteroid. Unlike most asteroids, which are composed of rock or ice, this mission marks the first-ever exploration of a metal world. Scientists believe that the asteroid, named Psyche after which the spacecraft is named, may hold the remnants of an early planet’s core. By studying this celestial body, researchers hope to gain insights into the inaccessible centers of Earth and other rocky planets.

The launch took place at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, where SpaceX successfully propelled the spacecraft into the overcast midmorning sky. The excitement surrounding the mission was palpable, with Laurie Leshin, director of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, describing it as “thrilling.” Jim Bell, a member of the Psyche team from Arizona State University, echoed this sentiment, exclaiming, “What a great ride so far.”

Approximately an hour after liftoff, the spacecraft successfully separated from the rocket’s upper stage and gracefully floated away, prompting applause from the ground controllers. After decades of venturing to distant worlds made of rock, ice, and gas, NASA is now eagerly pursuing the opportunity to explore a metal-rich asteroid. Psyche is the largest among the nine or so metal-rich asteroids discovered thus far, orbiting the sun in the outer portion of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, alongside millions of other space rocks. Its discovery in 1852 led to its name, inspired by the captivating goddess of the soul in Greek mythology.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the lead scientist from Arizona State University, expressed the longstanding human desire to explore the metal core of our own Earth, even referencing Jules Verne’s work. However, due to the immense pressure, high temperature, and technological limitations, this dream remains unattainable. Nevertheless, Elkins-Tanton highlighted the unique opportunity presented by the Psyche mission: studying a metal core by venturing to this asteroid. With a diameter of approximately 144 miles at its widest and a length of 173 miles, the asteroid is believed to be rich in iron, nickel, and other metals. It may also contain traces of gold, silver, platinum, or iridium, elements that have an affinity for iron and nickel.

While currently a mere speck of light in the night sky, the asteroid holds tremendous mystery that will only be unraveled once the spacecraft covers the more than 2 billion miles separating them. Scientists envision a landscape of spiky metal craters, towering metal cliffs, and metal-encrusted eroded lava flows colored greenish-yellow from sulfur. However, Elkins-Tanton acknowledges the possibility that their imaginations may fall short, expressing hope for the unexpected.

Believed to be a building block from the solar system’s formation 4.5 billion years ago, this asteroid can potentially provide answers to fundamental questions about the origin of life on Earth and the factors contributing to our planet’s habitability. Earth’s magnetic field, which shields our atmosphere and sustains life, is primarily generated by the iron core. By studying the asteroid, scientists hope to gain insights into this crucial aspect of planetary formation.

Led by Arizona State University, the $1.2 billion mission will take a roundabout route to reach the asteroid. The spacecraft, approximately the size of a van with solar panels the size of a tennis court, will use the gravity of Mars to propel itself in 2026. Three years later, it will reach the asteroid and endeavor to enter its orbit, circling as high as 440 miles and as close as 47 miles until at least 2031. Solar electric propulsion, utilizing xenon gas-fed thrusters emitting a gentle blue glow, will power the spacecraft. Additionally, an experimental communication system on board will use lasers instead of radio waves, aiming to enhance the flow of data from deep space to Earth.

The mission encountered delays due to flight software testing issues, resulting in a revised schedule that extended the travel time. Originally planned to arrive at the asteroid in 2026, the spacecraft will now reach its destination in 2029. Interestingly, this coincides with the year when another NASA spacecraft, which recently returned asteroid samples to the Utah desert, is set to explore a different space rock as it passes by Earth.

This article was written by the Associated Press Health and Science Department, with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Science and Educational Media Group. The AP bears sole responsibility for its content.

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