NASA’s spacecraft to explore an asteroid thought to be the core of a failed planet has now entered its final stages of testing.
Built by Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California and now in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Southern California, the Psyche spacecraft is destined to launch on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida in August 2022.
The solar-powered spacecraft will explore an asteroid called 16 Psyche in the Solar System’s main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
It’s due to arrive at the asteroid in January 2026 to begin at least 21 months in orbit mapping and studying the asteroid’s strange properties.
About 230 million miles/370 million kilometers from Earth in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, 16 Psyche measures roughly 140 miles/226 kilometers wide.
Apart from its massive size in the asteroid belt, what’s special about 16 Psyche is its weird metal-rich make-up that make it one of the most intriguing and most valuable asteroids astronomers know of. It was first discovered in 1852.
Close-ups by the Hubble Space Telescope suggest that its metallic rather than rocky or icy—as most asteroid are—and could be made of iron and nickel.
It’s thought to be the leftover core of a planet that failed during its formation, and some have suggested that its metallic nature could make it worth $10,000 quadrillion.
It could also help astronomers figure out how Earth and other planets formed.
Now at JPL is the spacecraft’s Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) Chassis, which is the size of a van and represents more than 80% of the hardware that will become the the Psyche spacecraft. The next 12 months will see the spacecraft assembled and tested before it’s shipped to Florida
“Seeing this big spacecraft chassis arrive at JPL from Maxar is among the most thrilling of the milestones we’ve experienced on what has already been a 10-year journey,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton at Arizona State University, the principal investigator on the Psyche mission. “Building this complex, precision piece of engineering during the year of COVID is absolutely a triumph of human determination and excellence.”
The spacecraft will have four science instruments:
- magnetometer to investigate the asteroid’s potential magnetic field
- multispectral imager to capture images of its surface
- spectrometer to analyze the neutrons and gamma rays coming from the surface to determine what its made of.
- a technology demonstration instrument that will test high data-rate laser communications that could be used by future NASA missions.
NASA’s Psyche mission is part of its Discovery Program of low-cost robotic space missions.
Wishing you clear skies and wide eyes.
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