Nasa space mission to metal-rich asteroid 16 Psyche lifts off successfully

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NASA’s mission to 16 Psyche, an asteroid rich in metals. Nasa’s Psyche spacecraft launched on Friday from the Kennedy Space Center to an asteroid called 16 Psyche, which is 2.2 billion miles (3.6 billion km) away and rich in metals. 

Asteroid like this may provide information about planets like Earth’s interior.

A metal-rich asteroid that may be the remnants of a small planet or perhaps an entirely new type of celestial body.

“We’re going to learn all kinds of new things, how these things fly through the solar system and hit each other and cause the evolution of our solar system today,” NASA chief Bill Nelson told reporters shortly before the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket lifted off at 10:19 am Eastern Time (1419 GMT).

At a news conference this week, lead scientist Lindy Elkins-Tanton explained that they have visited worlds made of rock, ice, gas, but never a metal-surfaced world.

As it approaches its destination in July 2029, the van-sized probe, powered by a next-generation electric propulsion system and flanked by two large solar arrays, will trail a blue glow from its electric propulsion system.

Exploring the cores of rocky planets

It will deploy its suite of advanced instruments over the next two years to investigate 16 Psyche’s chemical and mineral composition, as well as its topography, in search of an ancient magnetic field.

16 Psyche, named after the Greek goddess of the soul, could be a remnant of an ancient collision that exposed the iron-nickel core of a planetesimal.

There’s also a possibility that it could be something else, a primordial object from the solar system that has never been seen before.

“This is the only way we have to see a core, ” said Elkins-Tanton. There is a saying that goes something like this: “We are going to outer space to explore inner space tongue in cheek.”

It has been thought that 16 Psyche has an irregular, potato-like shape, measuring 173 miles (280 kilometres) across at its widest point, although it has never actually been seen up close.

As of just recently, scientists believed that it was overwhelmingly composed of metal, but analyses based on reflected radar and light now indicate that metal probably accounts for between 30-60% with rock making up the rest of the composition.

Propulsion powered by solar energy

Several technological innovations will be included in the mission.

In the 16 Psyche spacecraft, named after the asteroid, NASA will experiment with laser communications – a step similar to upgrading old telephone lines on Earth to fiber optics.

It is designed to provide 10 to 100 times the data-return capacity of today’s state-of-the-art radio systems, said Abi Biswas of Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

It also uses Hall-effect thrusters, which harness the energy from solar panels to create electric and magnetic fields that expel charged atoms of xenon gas.

An AA battery in your hand exerts about the same amount of thrust. However, in space, the spacecraft will accelerate continuously to tens of thousands of miles per hour.

Psyche will be the first mission to use such systems beyond lunar orbit, avoiding the need to carry thousands of pounds of chemical fuel into space.

Nasa is exploring the asteroid 16 Psyche for the first time ever, composed of metal rather than rock, ice, or gas.

Researchers hope to learn more about the inner cores of rocky planets such as ours – or identify previously unknown types of cosmic bodies – by studying this space oddity.

The mission launched on Friday, and here are some fun facts about it.

A quadrillion dollars

According to Forbes, 16 Psyche’s iron, nickel, and gold deposits could be worth $10,000,000,000,000,000,000 (that’s $10,000,000,000,000,000,000).

The mission’s principal investigator, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, said it was nothing more than a “fun intellectual exercise without any basis in reality.”

“We do not have the technology to bring Psyche back to Earth,” she said in a recent briefing. Despite the effort’s success, the metals market would be flooded, reducing their value to zero, she said.

The journey of an electric vehicle

Psyche was launched on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, but it will use a more efficient form of propulsion to complete its 2.2 billion-mile (3.6 billion-kilometre) journey.

Four solar electric thrusters are powered by Psyche’s solar arrays, which convert light into electricity. In plasma TVs and car headlights, xenon ions (charged atoms) are accelerated and expelled using electromagnetic fields.

Even though the blue glow evokes Star Trek, it is not a warp drive: the force it exerts is roughly equal to the weight of an AA battery in your palm.

In space, however, the probe will accelerate continuously to tens of thousands of miles per hour.

Communications using lasers 

In order to complement radio-frequency-based communications for deep space missions, NASA is turning to laser-based systems.

Psyche will carry out a technology experiment to demonstrate 10 times higher data rates than traditional telecommunications, according to Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Abi Biswas.

NASA’s laser beam will be fired from a JPL facility on Table Mountain in California, with the spacecraft returning its signal to Caltech’s Palomar Observatory. It is hoped that the technology will one day be used on Mars missions by humans.

The science of gravity

A suite of scientific instruments on Psyche probes the asteroid’s chemical and mineral composition and looks for signs of an ancient magnetic field.

Psyche’s old radio system will also be used to probe the asteroid’s gravity field using the Doppler Effect.

In the same way that ambulance sirens have a higher pitch as they move towards you and a lower pitch as they move away, planetary scientist Ben Weiss explained to us, “We can look at the pitch or frequency of the radio waves coming from the antenna to find out how fast the spacecraft is moving” as it orbits its target.

They can determine how “lumpy” the gravity field is by tracking the spacecraft’s speed at various points around the asteroid, which in turn provides information about its composition and structure.

Rock instead of metal?

As a result of its brightness, 16 Psyche has been widely believed to be almost entirely metal, supporting the theory that it is an extruded core whose rocky crust and mantle have been blown off in an ancient collision.

According to Brown University researchers, it is less dense than all iron bodies should be based on the way it imposes gravity on neighbouring bodies.

In effect, they created a metal sandwich by bringing metal up from 16 Psyche’s core and coating its surface above a rocky mantle.

We won’t know for sure until the Psyche spacecraft reaches its destination in 2029

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