NASA's Psyche Mission

Psyche Mission – NASA’s Journey to a Metal World

Journey to a Metal World

Recently NASA presented to the world a plan for further space exploration. The Psyche Mission is a journey to the asteroid in an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The Arizona State University, which is leading the mission, first proposed the exploration of Psyche in 2014. Why is Psyche so special we want to send a mission there? you may ask. Firstly, and most importantly, it is the nearly naked core of a protoplanet, which outer layers were destroyed due to collisions. Because we cannot access the Earth’s core, Psyche might be ‘unique opportunity to learn more about the interiors of planets and large moons, whose cores are hidden beneath many miles of rock’, says Lindy Elkins-Tanton, leader of the team.

Logo of the Psyche Mission
Logo of the Psyche Mission
Image Courtesy

Main Objectives

We have established that there will be a spacecraft on Psyche, now let’s discuss what it will do there. After reaching the asteroid, the spacecraft will orbit it for 21 months, mapping its properties. Firstly, the team wants to determine if Psyche is a core, not an unmelted piece of metal. Secondly, mapping the surface of Psyche and its age is also very important. Furthermore, scientists want to determine the differences and similarities between the Earth’s and Psyche’s core. That means checking if small metal bodies incorporate the same light elements we think Earth’s high-pressure core would. Finally, the team also hopes to check how different were conditions in which Psyche was formed, compared to the formation of the Earth’s core.

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Science Goals of the Psyche Mission

The main purpose of the Psyche Mission is to get a grasp on the metallic core, which we can’t access otherwise. The Earth’s inside is a greater mystery for us than the surface of Mars. The mission will provide scientists with an opportunity to look inside the core of block planet’s and therefore examine it more accurately than ever before. It will also enable scientists to explore and understand the iron core in general, which is one of the key blocks planet’s structure. Moreover, the worlds we explored until now (Earth, Moon, Mars) were all made of rocks or ice. This is the first time in history we get an opportunity to visit and explore the world made of metal.

The Psyche Asteroid
Image Courtesy

Psyche Mission Timeline

The mission itself will last about 5 years, however, the preparations and data analysis afterward will last much longer. In 2022 the Psyche spacecraft will be launched from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. Next year it will flyby Mars. Finally, the spacecraft will arrive in the asteroid’s orbit in 2026 and it will spend 21 months orbiting Psyche and collecting data. That will involve taking photos, mapping the asteroid, and studying its properties.

Also read: All the articles of Basics of Astrophysics series

Communication Innovation

Another interesting thing about the Psyche Mission is that it will test the new system of communication- The Deep Space Optical Communication (DSOC). Instead of radio waves, which are now the way of communicating with space objects, the data will be encoded in photons. This new laser technology allows communicating more data than ever before.

The DSOC system will be used during NASA's Psyche Mission
Visualization of the DSOC system
Image Courtesy

Conclusion

Psyche is a very special asteroid, due to its exposed core of an early planet. NASA’s Psyche Mission will allow us to explore and characterize the iron core we can’t access here on Earth. It will also provide valuable data on the core structure and complete characteristics of the Psyche asteroid. Additionally, it will test the Deep Space Optical Communication system, enabling to transfer more data faster than ever before. Let’s then all stay tuned for updates and keep our fingers crossed for the mission.

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