January 19, 2022

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For the first time, a space probe will examine a world made mostly of metal

For the first time, a space probe will examine a world made mostly of metal

Scientists have already sent space probes to rocky asteroids and icy comets. But this year, for the first time, a space probe leaves for a mysterious metallic realm!

This year, some very exciting space missions will begin. And Psyche’s mission cannot go unmentioned. In August 2022, the Psyche spacecraft will blast through the sky and head towards an asteroid of the same name, which, seen from Earth, lurks as a mysterious blurry point in the asteroid belt. Why did this space rock arouse the interest of researchers? Well, unlike most asteroids, Psyche is not made up of rock or ice, but is extraordinarily rich in minerals.

The mineral-rich asteroid Psyche is a particularly large specimen. It has a diameter of at least 210 kilometers. However, not much is known about the asteroid. In the images taken by telescopes, Psyche appears as a blurry point, the location of which we can hardly determine from Earth. Scientists concluded from radar data that the asteroid is somewhat similar in shape to a potato and that it rotates on its side. But that’s where it ends.

More about yourself
Asteroid Psyche was discovered on March 17, 1852 by the Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis. The space rock is located in the asteroid belt, which lies between the orbits of the planets Mars and Jupiter. Saiki has a diameter of about 200 km, and is one of the largest asteroids. In addition, due to its density, it is one of the ten largest asteroids between Mars and Jupiter. The name Psyche comes from Greek mythology, where Psyche is the lover of the god of love Eros.

Not only did this mysterious character attract the attention of researchers, but the fact that Psyche is unusually rich in minerals also raises interesting questions. By analyzing the light reflected from the asteroid, scientists hypothesize that the space rock – like Earth’s core – is composed primarily of iron and nickel. One possible explanation for this is that Psyche formed early in our solar system. An asteroid may represent the exposed core of a protoplanet, which has somehow lost its rocky outer layers.

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Answer the questions
We may have answers in a few years. Because NASA is planning to visit a private asteroid. the first. Because no space probe has ever traveled to a metallic realm. This means that the expedition will explore areas that have not yet been explored. Not only do the researchers hope to answer the question of how Psyche once saw daylight, the mission should also provide more insight into how our solar system was used in childhood.

Drawing of the Psyche spacecraft that will study the asteroid of the same name. Photo: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

So Psyche may be able to help us answer basic questions about the formation of our solar system. “If it turns out to be part of a metallic core, it could be part of the first generation of early cores in our solar system,” said researcher Lindy Elkins Tanton. However, this is still just speculation. We won’t know for sure until we get there. This will truly be a journey of discovery.”

“This will truly be a journey of discovery.”

The main challenge while designing the task was choosing the right tools. Because how do you make sure you get the data you need if you’re not sure what exactly you’re going to measure? In the end, the team chose a magnetometer that can measure any magnetic field. The spacecraft is also equipped with a camera to image and map the Psyche surface and spectrometers to determine what the surface is made of using gamma rays and neutrons that are thrown away.

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But before scientists can use these tools, the spacecraft must first travel 2.4 billion kilometers. After launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in August 2022, the spacecraft will pass our nearest neighbor Mars about nine months later. The probe will use Mars’ gravity to propel itself toward the asteroid. Then it settles into orbit around Psyche; First at an altitude of 700 km above the surface and later descending to a final altitude of 85 km. In total, the Psyche spacecraft will spend about 21 months with the asteroid, carefully mapping it and studying its unusual properties.

The path of the Psyche spacecraft as it heads toward the asteroid of the same name. Photo: NASA

The spacecraft is not expected to reach Seiki until 2026. But before that, the mission team will already be turning on its cameras. And then we’ll finally know what that faint haze we’re now observing through telescopes looks like. So for the first time, the surface features of this strange and distant world will be revealed.

Special mission
It promises to be a special mission. Because it means we’re traveling for the first time to a “core of metal” hidden deep in Earth-like planets. For example, the Earth’s core is inaccessible and is hidden far under the mantle and crustaceans. But asteroid Psyche offers us unique insight into the building blocks of planet formation and the opportunity to study a previously undiscovered world.

Researchers hope the mission will solve many mysteries about the asteroid: where it came from, what it is made of, and what does it tell us about how our solar system formed? “Humans have always been explorers,” Elkins Tanton says. “We want to know what’s beyond the next hill, and that seems to be ingrained in us. At the moment we have no idea what exactly we will find. But I expect we will be quite surprised.”

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