NASA has moved forward with its ambitious mission to the metal asteroid 16 Psyche, rescheduling its 2023 launch date to 2022. This one-year change will have a big impact on the mission. Due to favorable orbits, the mission will reach Psyche four years earlier than previously scheduled.
"We challenged the mission design team to explore if an earlier launch date could provide a more efficient trajectory to the asteroid Psyche, and they came through in a big way," said Jim Green, NASA director of the Planetary Science Division, in a statement. "This will enable us to fulfill our science objectives sooner and at a reduced cost."
Asteroid 16 Psyche is a unique object. Unlike the other space rocks in the asteroid belt, 16 Psyche is made almost exclusively of iron and nickel, the same composition as Earth’s core. If it were to be mined, the iron alone would be worth $10,000 QUADRILLION. Sadly, the global market would collapse due to the sudden overabundance of the raw material.
Now, scientists are heading there. The unusual composition has astronomers suspecting that the asteroid is the failed core of a planet that never formed. Thanks to the new plan, we will begin to study it a lot sooner.
"The biggest advantage is the excellent trajectory, which gets us there about twice as fast and is more cost effective," Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University added. "We are all extremely excited that NASA was able to accommodate this earlier launch date. The world will see this amazing metal world so much sooner."
The craft design is now being updated. The probe will not get as close to the Sun as previously planned, so it will need less heat protection. It will also skip an Earth gravity assist, although it will still use Mars to get an extra push. The probe will also have more solar panels to make sure it gets all the power it needs for the mission.
"By increasing the size of the solar arrays, the spacecraft will have the power it needs to support the higher velocity requirements of the updated mission," said Steve Scott, the Psyche program manager at Space System Loral, the company building the probe.
Psyche is the 14th mission of the Discovery Program, which utilizes small (and cheaper) probes to investigate intriguing targets. It was approved in January, and has a sister mission Lucy that will explore the Trojan asteroids in the orbit of Jupiter. Lucy is still scheduled to launch in 2021. Among the previous success stories, there’s Dawn, which has been looking at two other interesting objects – Vesta and Ceres – in the asteroid belt.