NASA says the Psyche Mission is almost ready to make its 1.5 billion-mile journey to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The mission is named after the giant metal-rich Psyche asteroid that was discovered in 1852. Work on the Psyche Mission concept began in 2011, and in 2017 it was selected as the 14th mission in NASA’s Discovery program.
Asteroids have become a key area of interest in space exploration for several reasons. They are tracked, traced, and studied due to their potential risk of impacting Earth. They are also estimated to house valuable minerals worth billions of dollars. Missions to asteroids like NASA’s Lucy Mission study Trojan asteroids from a cosmic-fossil perspective, since they house unaltered material that dates back to the early days of the solar system.
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NASA has just outfitted the Psyche spacecraft with the massive X-shaped solar panels it will use to journey to the asteroid belt. The mission is expected to launch in August this year. The Psyche asteroid is unlike any other. NASA believes that it might be the exposed nickel-iron core of an early planet. They say this early planet may have lost its outer layers by violent collisions during the early days of the solar system. Inner cores are usually concealed and inaccessible as pressure, temperatures, and radioactive processes build up in the depths of a planet.
Testing New Space Technology
The Psyche spacecraft, about the size of a smart car with giant 82 feet solar panels, is not just out to take a closer look at one of the most mysterious asteroids. It will be testing new space exploration technology. Instead of traditional rocket fuel, the spacecraft uses what could be the future of space travel, ion propulsion. The craft is also the first to break away from radio communications and will be testing laser communications, a tech NASA believes will replace how we communicate in space.
The ion propulsion system of the spacecraft is fueled by the energy it gets from its solar panel. This electricity powers a new type of thruster called Hall thruster. It will be the first time it is ever used in deep space. The thruster converts Xenon gas into Xenon ions which are expelled to propel the ship and build speed gradually. Laser communications can encode more information in photons than normal radio waves. Lasers are also faster as they travel at the speed of light. This mission will be testing it in deep space for the first time.
Psyche will use Mars’ gravitational pull to accelerate towards its destination. It will spend 21 months measuring, mapping, and gradually tightening its orbits until it passes just above the surface of the Psyche asteroid. The mission, which will launch atop a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, will determine if the asteroid is in fact a planet’s inner core. If it is, NASA will have a unique opportunity to study the interior of terrestrial planets that are much like our own and normally can’t be accessed. “Buckle up for an exciting ride,” NASA said.