NASA’s Psyche spacecraft embarks on a six-year journey to its asteroid namesake

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft has blasted off and begun a six-year, 2.2-billion-mile journey to a peculiar asteroid. Astronomers have speculated that the space rock, also named Psyche, was once the partial core of a small planet in the early days of the Solar System. The seemingly iron- and nickel-rich asteroid may hold clues to the formation of planets, including our own.

On Friday, the uncrewed Psyche spacecraft lifted off at 10:19AM ET aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket at Kennedy Space Center in Florida. After successfully jettisoning its fairings and separating from the rocket, ground controllers established two-way communication. Telemetry reports indicate it made it to space in good health. The mission had faced numerous delays before finally lifting off.

Psyche (the asteroid) rotates around the sun in a belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. Researchers estimate it’s made of 30 to 60 percent nickel-iron core, allowing them a rare glimpse into a (possible) planetary core. “My best guess is that it’s more than half metal based on the data that we’ve got,” Lindy Elkins-Tanton, an Arizona State University professor working as the mission’s principal investigator, told The New York Times. “We’re really going to see a kind of new object, which means that a lot of our ideas are going to be proven wrong.”

NASA workers in white coats and masks inspecting a spacecraft inside a white building.

NASA / Kim Shiflett

The spacecraft will take around six years to reach Psyche. At that point, NASA’s Psyche craft will orbit the asteroid for 26 months, studying it with various instruments. The craft will use cameras to get an up-close peek, a magnetometer to look for an ancient magnetic field, a gamma-ray spectrometer to detect high-energy gamma rays and neutrons and a radio antenna to map the space rock’s gravity.

“I am excited to see the treasure trove of science Psyche will unlock as NASA’s first mission to a metal world,” said Nicola Fox, a NASA Science Mission Directorate associate. “By studying asteroid Psyche, we hope to better understand our universe and our place in it, especially regarding the mysterious and impossible-to-reach metal core of our own home planet, Earth.”

The spacecraft will also test NASA’s deep space laser communications, an experimental communications method that could increase deep space bandwidth 100-fold over the current standard, radio waves. “It’s exciting to know that, in a few short weeks, Deep Space Optical Communications will begin sending data back to Earth to test this critical capability for the future of space exploration,” said Dr. Prasun Desai, Associate Administrator (Acting), STMD at NASA HQ. “The insights we learn will help us advance these innovative new technologies and, ultimately, pursue bolder goals in space.”

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