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NASA building spacecraft launching in 2022 to study metal-rock asteroid Psyche

NASA is progressing toward an upcoming mission dedicated to exploring a unique asteroid called Psyche. The metal-rock asteroid orbits the Sun between Mars and Jupiter and could give us answers on how Earth was formed. The spacecraft that will be used for NASA’s Psyche mission is graduating from a design phase to manufacturing ahead of a planned launch in 2022.

The Psyche mission has already passed the blueprint phase as well as engineering model tests to ensure that the systems used for the mission will work in space. According to an official report on NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory blog, the results of the tests have been positive so far.

“It’s one of the most intense reviews a mission goes through in its entire life cycle,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who as principal investigator for Psyche leads the overall mission. “And we passed with flying colors. The challenges are not over, and we’re not at the finish line, but we’re running strong.”

The goal of this mission is to determine the composition of the Psyche asteroid. Unlike most asteroids, which are essentially rocky or icy, Psyche has a metallic core with iron and nickel, similar to the Earth’s core.

Scientists believe that this asteroid may actually be the heart of a planet that has lost its outer layers. Understanding the Psyche asteroid could also mean learning more about Earth.

The main body of NASA’s Psyche spacecraft, called the Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) Chassis, is in a clean room at Maxar Technologies in Palo Alto, California, where a technician prepares to integrate part of the electric propulsion system onto the chassis. Source: NASA

The spacecraft designed for the Psyche mission will use a magnetometer to measure the magnetic field of the Psyche asteroid. NASA is also building a multispectral imager that will capture images from the surface and data about the asteroid composition. There are also dedicated spectrometers to analyze the neutrons and gamma rays coming from the surface to study the element composition.

Elkins-Tanton, director of the Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University in Tempe, highlights the complexity of the project:

“This is planning on steroids. And it includes trying to understand down to seven or eight levels of detail exactly how everything on the spacecraft has to work together to ensure we can measure our science, gather our data and send all the data back to Earth. The complexity is mind-boggling.”

NASA plans to assemble and test the entire spacecraft starting in February 2021. If they succeed with the testing process, the launch will take place in August 2022. The agency points out that engineers are working according to the requirements of social distancing due to COVID-19. Ultimately, NASA expects to reach the Psyche asteroid in early 2026.

You can read more about the Psyche mission on NASA’s website.

Top image: Artist concept