NASA has announced two ambitious missions that will look towards asteroids to unlock some of the secrets of the formation of the solar system. The new Discovery missions, Lucy and Psyche, are expected to launch early next decade.
“Lucy will visit a target-rich environment of Jupiter’s mysterious Trojan asteroids, while Psyche will study a unique metal asteroid that’s never been visited before,” said Thomas Zurbuchen from NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in a statement. “This is what Discovery Program missions are all about – boldly going to places we’ve never been to enable groundbreaking science.”
The Psyche mission will visit asteroid 16 Psyche, an asteroid like no other. While most objects in the asteroid belt are icy or rocky, 16 Psyche is mostly made of iron and nickel, similar in composition to Earth’s core – which is the reason for the mission. Its particular composition suggests that the asteroid, which is 210 kilometers (130 miles) in diameter, might be the exposed core of a failed planet.
“This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world – not one of rock or ice, but of metal,” explained Psyche principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe. “16 Psyche is the only known object of its kind in the solar system, and this is the only way humans will ever visit a core. We learn about inner space by visiting outer space.”
The other mission, Lucy, will look at the Trojan asteroids, the two peculiar groups of space rocks that sit in Jupiter’s orbit, one preceding and the other following the giant gas planet. Lucy is expected to visit six of these objects and is equipped with technology similar to (but upgraded) that which allowed New Horizons to successfully study Pluto.
“This is a unique opportunity,” said Harold F. Levison, principal investigator of the Lucy mission from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “Because the Trojans are remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets, they hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system. Lucy, like the human fossil for which it is named, will revolutionize the understanding of our origins.”
Lucy is scheduled to launch in 2021 and Psyche will fly off in 2023. These missions are the 13th and 14th missions within the Discovery Program. Previous success stories include MESSENGER, the incredible observation of Mercury, and Dawn's study of Vesta and Ceres.