NASA is launching a mission Friday at 10:19 a.m. ET to the distant asteroid Psyche, a previously unexplored metal world that scientists believe could be the core of an ancient celestial body.
But the weather promises to be capricious, as the chance of favorable weather for the start is only 40%. If necessary, a new shooting opportunity is planned for Saturday.
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Artistic illustration of NASA’s Psyche probe.
Humanity has already visited worlds made of rock, ice or gas. But this will be the first time we visit a world that has a metallic surface, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the mission’s science director, said at a news conference.
The road there will be long: Psyche lies in the outer part of the asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. NASA’s probe will travel around 3.5 million kilometers to get there. The arrival date is planned for summer 2029.
Thanks to the light reflected from its surface, scientists know that Psyche is very dense, made of metal and another material – perhaps rock.
But we don’t know what psyche looks like, the researcher explained.
I often joke that it’s shaped like a potato, because potatoes come in many different shapes, so I’m not wrong.
Scientists believe that the more than 200 km long Psyche could be the core of an ancient celestial body whose surface was torn away by asteroid impacts.
Like Mars, Venus or Mercury, Earth has a metallic core. “But we’ll never see these cores, it’s too hot, too deep,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton. The mission to Psyche is therefore our only way to see a core.
Psyche emerged about 4.5 billion years ago, at the birth of our solar system. Volcanic eruptions may have occurred, leaving traces in the form of ancient lava flows.
Then, as Psyche cooled, its contraction may have caused giant cracks to form.
Scientists are also curious to see what the craters look like on a metallic celestial body: The material thrown by the asteroid impact could have remained frozen in the air, forming points, so to speak.
The probe will remain in orbit around Psyche for just over two years, alternating between different altitudes.
Three scientific instruments will be used: multispectral imagers to photograph it, spectrometers to determine its composition and magnetometers to measure its magnetic field.
To move, the probe will also use Hall effect thrusters, a first for interplanetary travel.
These motors use the power provided by the probe’s solar panels to harvest ions of a noble gas (xenon gas), which are then accelerated by passing through an electric field. These are then ejected at very high speeds, five times faster than fuel from a conventional rocket, said NASA engineer David Oh. Which provides the necessary boost.
We’ve heard this in Star Wars and Star Trek, but today we’re making the future a reality.
The Psyche mission will also test a communications system using lasers that will allow more data to be transmitted than radio.