NASA embarks on a mission to explore the asteroid Psyche, which is abundant in valuable metals.
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On Friday, a NASA spacecraft launched from the Kennedy Space Center on a mission to reach Psyche, an object located 2.2 billion miles (3.6 billion kilometers) away. This distant destination holds the potential to provide insights into the composition of planets, including Earth.
Just before the launch at 10:19 am Eastern Time (14:19 GMT), NASA’s chief, Bill Nelson, expressed his anticipation about gaining new knowledge regarding the dynamics of celestial objects as they traverse the solar system, collide with one another, and influence the evolution of our solar system. The spacecraft was carried into space by a reusable SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket.
During a briefing earlier in the week, the lead scientist, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, pointed out the uniqueness of this mission. She mentioned that while humanity has explored worlds made of rock, ice, and gas, this endeavor represents the first time we will be visiting a celestial body with a metallic surface.
The spacecraft, adorned with a blue radiance emanating from its advanced electric propulsion system and featuring two expansive solar arrays, is roughly the size of a van. It is expected to reach its destination in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter in July 2029.
Solar electric propulsion (SEP):-
The mission incorporates several cutting-edge technological advancements.
The Psyche spacecraft, bearing the name of the asteroid it’s destined for, will serve as a testing ground for next-generation communication methods based on laser technology. This development is akin to NASA’s analogy of upgrading conventional telephone lines on Earth to the efficiency of fiber optics.
Referred to as Deep Space Optical Communications, this system is engineered to showcase a remarkable data-return capacity enhancement, estimated to be 10 to 100 times greater than the capabilities of contemporary radio systems used in space. Abi Biswas from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory noted this in an official statement.
Psyche is also equipped with a distinctive propulsion system known as “hall-effect thrusters.” These thrusters leverage energy generated by solar panels to create electric and magnetic fields, expelling charged xenon gas atoms in the process. While the thrust generated is roughly equivalent to the weight of a standard AA battery in your hand, in the vacuum of space, the spacecraft will continuously accelerate to speeds in the tens of thousands of miles per hour.
This innovation eliminates the need to carry thousands of pounds of chemical fuel into space and marks the first instance of their use beyond lunar orbit with the Psyche mission.
Analyzing the inner cores of terrestrial planets:-
Over the span of two years, the spacecraft will embark on the deployment of its array of advanced instruments, with the aim of delving into Psyche’s characteristics. Its mission encompasses the search for traces of a historical magnetic field as well as an in-depth examination of the asteroid’s chemical and mineral composition, along with its topographical features.
Scientists hypothesize that Psyche, aptly named after the Greek goddess of the soul, may represent the iron-nickel core of a “planetesimal.” These planetesimals are fundamental building blocks of all rocky planets and were potentially exposed when an ancient collision stripped away their outer layers.
On the other hand, it’s also plausible that Psyche might reveal itself to be something entirely distinct—a primordial relic from the early solar system, a celestial entity that has remained undocumented until now.
Lindy Elkins-Tanton remarked, “This represents a unique opportunity to investigate a celestial core. It’s a bit tongue-in-cheek, as we’re venturing into outer space to explore the mysteries of inner space.”
Psyche is presumed to possess an irregular, potato-like shape, spanning about 173 miles (280 kilometers) at its broadest point, although it has never been observed up close.
Up until recently, the prevailing belief was that the Psyche was predominantly composed of metal. However, recent analyses using reflected radar and light data suggest that metal makes up an estimated 30–60 percent of its composition, with the remaining portion consisting of rock.
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