Asteroid Psyche has been known about for almost two centuries but it's only in the last few decades that it became clear this was a very weird world worth exploring. This week, NASA is set to launch the Psyche spacecraft, which will travel 3.5 billion kilometers (2.2 billion) miles to visit its namesake in the first-ever mission to visit a metal-rich asteroid.
A metallic and silicate asteroid, potentially up to 60 percent of Psyche is made of metal. This is so much metal that for a long time it was thought Psyche was the fully metallic core of an almost-planet that was then broken apart in collisions.
The asteroid's origin is now believed to be more complex but there is still a lot of uncertainty. To solve this mystery, we’ll need a spacecraft to get up close. The current schedule is NASA's Psyche spacecraft will launch from the Kennedy Space Center on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket on October 12, 2023, with the launch window opening at 10:16 am EDT (2:16 pm UTC).
The spacecraft is the size of a small van and it is equipped with a variety of instruments to fully understand the composition of the asteroid, and with that its origin. It will go on a slow trek across the inner Solar System, passing by Mars in May 2026 for a gravity assist. The foray near the Red Planet will give it a boost to travel all the way to the other edge of the Main Asteroid Belt, where Psyche resides.
The asteroid orbits around the Sun on a fairly elliptical orbit getting as close to the Sun as 2.5 times the Earth-Sun distance and as far as 3.3 times. It has a potato shape, with its longest axis about 280 kilometers (175 miles). It also has two large craters, each 90 kilometers (55 miles) across, indicating the major collisional history of Psyche.
The spacecraft will reach the asteroid in July 2029 with the goal of starting the science mission the following month. The primary mission will last for two years where Psyche, the spacecraft, will take pictures, map the surface, and unveil the chemistry of Psyche the asteroid.
The spacecraft has also got a side mission. Attached to it is a technology demonstration: NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications. This system aims to test the use of lasers to transmit communication with high bandwidth beyond the orbit of the Moon. This could mean more data sent back to Earth by deep-space missions. The system will be tested in the first two years of travel but won’t be used in the primary mission.
How to watch the Psyche mission launch this week
NASA will be streaming a live launch broadcast with commentary from 9:30 am EDT (1:30 pm UTC) on Thursday, October 12 with the launch window opening from 10.16 am EDT (2:16 pm UTC). It will be streamed on YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, Twitch, and NASA’s website among others.