Psyche mission will explore a giant metal asteroid, located between Mars and Jupiter, orbiting the Sun. The space body about 210 kilometers in diameter is the only one of its kind in the Solar System, because – unlike most observed to be formed mainly by rocks, ice or gas – it has a 95% composition of metallic iron and nickel, similar to the Earth’s core. The expectation is that the initiative will provide important information about the planetary origin.
Discovered in 1852 by the Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis, it was called 16 Psyche – for being the 16th asteroid ever cataloged and nicknamed in honor of the Greek goddess of the soul. It is believed to be an exposed core of a destroyed primitive planet, due to a series of violent collisions billions of years ago. Its remaining structure has a mass of around 220 billion kilograms – 0.03% of the Moon’s mass.
The project was approved in 2017 – as well as Lucy, who will visit the Trojan asteroid field in the Jupiter region – and is part of the Discovery program that aims to “boldly go to places we have never been to enable innovative science”, according to speaks of Thomas Zurbuchen, a member of the science department in a press release from the agency.
So far, no exploratory probe has visited a similar object. From a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, the launch is scheduled for 2022, and will use low-thrust solar electric propulsion to conduct a gravity assist. It will pass through Mars in 2023 and reach its destination in 2026, the year in which it will begin a 21-month orbit to capture the first images and study the properties and emergence of the 16 Psyche.
The spacecraft will be 24.76 meters long and 7.34 meters wide, and will have some main instruments on board. Among them, two high resolution cameras and a spectrometer of gamma rays and neutrons to determine the composition of the asteroid and characterize its topography.
In addition to these, it will have a magnetometer to check if the body has a magnetic field and a device to measure the gravitational field, as well as create a frequency range to establish communication. To this end, the mission will test a new laser technology, capable of encoding data in photons – instead of radio waves – and transferring information more quickly.