American aerospace manufacturer SpaceX has just landed a NASA contract to launch a mission that has its sights on an asteroid named 16 Psyche.
Falcon Heavy will launch @NASAPsyche! The mission, for which @NASA requires the highest level of launch vehicle reliability, will study a metal asteroid between Mars and Jupiter to help humanity better understand the formation of our solar system’s planets https://t.co/mvrgx6dvaW pic.twitter.com/FqMaRKscQ4— SpaceX (@SpaceX) February 28, 2020
Projected to take place in 2022 and launch from NASA’s Launch Pad 39A in Cape Canaveral, Florida, the mission presupposes sending a 5,750 lb. (2,608 kg.) spacecraft carrying a suite of four instruments via SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy Rocket to study the mineral-rich asteroid and determine what happened to 16 Psyche over its lifetime.
The total cost for NASA’s mission, led by Arizona State University, is estimated at $117 million.
During the mission, Psyche is set to test an experimental laser technology suggested as a means of improving communications with spacecraft over large distances.
The expenses of the mission also include its two secondary payloads, as Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (EscaPADE) will be tasked with studying the Martian atmosphere, while Janus will study binary asteroids.
The SpaceX launch service is to be managed by NASA’s Launch Services Programme at Kennedy Space Center, Florida.
The overall management, including system engineering, integration and testing, is to be entrusted to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, while Maxar Technologies is to provide its high-power solar electric propulsion spacecraft chassis.
The Psyche mission was initially approved in 2017 as part of NASA’s Discovery Programme, which also includes missions such as the Kepler Space Telescope and InSight Mars lander.
Why Are Scientists ‘Psyched’?
While most asteroids are made of rock and ice, Psyche, which orbits in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, is a veritable “metallic world”. With a diameter in excess of 125 miles (201 km), Psyche is almost entirely composed of iron and nickel. Psyche's contents are worth approximately 130,000 times as much as every single human industry put together, according to experts.
Scientists suggest that Psyche is a protoplanet, with its entire body consisting of what one day could be the core of a new planet. The latter fact renders the asteroid a particularly fascinating study for astronomers hoping to learn more about the formation and early life of planets. Psyche could be a remnant of a violent collision with another planetary body billions of years ago. There’s evidence suggesting that Psyche was once molten, and cooled after its crust was stripped away.
While the Earth's core is believed to also be composed primarily of iron, analysis of Psyche could potentially reveal greater details pertaining to the centre of our planet, which cannot be studied directly due to the impossibility of sending a probe thousands of miles underground.
There are also theories that Psyche may contain water, making it a possible candidate for a stellar fuel station, as water can be used to sustain life and synthesise rocket fuel.
The current contract is SpaceX’s 8th from NASA’s Launch Services Program (LSP). However, it is a first for Falcon Heavy, which has a number of science missions to its credit, such as NASA’s Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS).