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NASA launches spacecraft to explore metal-rich asteroid Psyche

NASA on Friday launched a spacecraft from Florida on its way to Psyche, the largest of the several metal-rich asteroids known in our solar system and believed by scientists to be the remnant core of an ancient protoplanet, offering clues about Earth's formation.

The Psyche probe, folded inside the cargo bay of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, blasted off under partly cloudy skies from NASA's Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral on a planned journey 2.2 billion miles (3.5 billion km) through space. The spacecraft, roughly the size of a small van, is due to reach the asteroid in August 2029.

The launch, shown live on NASA TV, marks the latest in a series of recent NASA missions seeking insights about the origins of our planet about 4.5 billion years ago by sending robotic spacecraft to explore asteroids — primordial relics from the dawn of the solar system.

Asteroid Psyche measures roughly 173 miles (279km) across at its widest point and resides on the outer fringes of the main asteroid belt between the planets Mars and Jupiter.

Cargo-faring panels enclosing the spacecraft inside the nose of the rocket's upper stage were jettisoned about five minutes after launch, and the probe itself was released into space about an hour later. NASA has said it takes about two hours to autonomously unfurl the spacecraft's twin solar panels and to point its communications antennae towards Earth.

The probe is propelled by solar-electric ion thrusters being used for the first time on an interplanetary mission.

Psyche's mission control team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory near Los Angeles plans to spend the next three to four months conducting checks of the spacecraft's systems before sending it on its journey into deep space.

After reaching the asteroid, the spacecraft would then orbit it for 26 months, scanning Psyche with instruments built to measure its gravity, magnetic proprieties and composition.

According to the leading hypothesis, the asteroid is the once-molten, long-frozen inner hulk of a baby planet torn apart by collisions with other celestial bodies in the early solar system. It orbits the sun about three times farther than Earth, even at its closest to our planet.

'OUTER SPACE TO EXPLORE INNER SPACE'

The first asteroid of its kind chosen for study at close range by spacecraft, Psyche is believed to consist largely of iron, nickel, gold and other metals whose collective hypothetical monetary value has been placed at 10 quadrillion dollars.

But the Psyche mission has nothing to do with space mining, according to scientists. Its objective is to gain greater understanding of the formation of Earth and other rocky planets that are built about cores of molten metal. Earth's molten centre is too deep and too hot to ever be examined directly.

“So we say, tongue-in-cheek, that we're going to outer space to explore inner space,” Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Psyche's principal investigator for NASA's mission partner Arizona State University, told a briefing for reporters on Tuesday.

Once reaching Psyche, the probe is set to circle it in a series of gradually descending orbits, ending up a mere 40 miles (64km) from the asteroid's surface, before ending the mission in November 2031.

The asteroid, discovered in 1852 and named for the goddess of the soul in Greek mythology, is the largest of about nine known asteroids that appear from ground-based radar observations to consist largely of metal, with rocky material mixed in. Still, scientists can only guess at what Psyche looks like, Elkins-Tanton said.

The spacecraft is programmed to approach Mars in May 2026 for a gravity assist intended to boost its momentum and put its trajectory on course for its final destination.

Other space flight milestones in store for the Psyche mission include a ride-along technology demonstration testing a laser-based communication system to send high-bandwidth data to Earth from beyond the moon for the first time.

It also marks the first dedicated NASA launch on a Falcon Heavy rocket furnished by Elon Musk's SpaceX company, and the first interplanetary mission ever flown by the Falcon Heavy.

The launch came two weeks after NASA accomplished a return to Earth of the largest sample of material ever collected from the surface of an asteroid, in this case a much smaller, rocky near-Earth asteroid named Bennu.

NASA in 2021 launched a spacecraft named Lucy on a 12-year expedition to study the Trojan asteroids, two large clusters of space rocks orbiting the sun ahead of and behind the path of Jupiter.

And last September, NASA sent a spacecraft slamming into an asteroid with enough force to nudge it from its natural path — the first time humans altered the motion of a celestial body — in a successful test of a planetary defence system.

Reuters


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