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NASA, SpaceX set to launch a joint mission to asteroid Psyche, study it for metal contents

In a first mission of its kind, NASA, and Elon Musk-led SpaceX are planning to go to a rather unique asteroid, called Psyche and conduct several studies and research on it.

SpaceX is scheduled to launch NASA’s mission to the asteroid Psyche on later today. The launch will take place from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida, utilizing SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket.

The mission, named Psyche after the target asteroid, was selected by NASA in 2017 as one of two missions within its Discovery Program. This program supports relatively cost-effective missions within the solar system. Originally slated for launch on October 5, NASA later announced a one-week delay, with the Psyche mission now set to launch at 7:46 PM IST on October 12.

NASA explained that the postponement was necessary to complete the verification of parameters for controlling the Psyche spacecraft’s nitrogen cold gas thrusters. These thrusters will be crucial for manoeuvring the vehicle, changing its orientation, and managing momentum.

Psyche is a particularly unique asteroid as it is only the 16th asteroid ever to be discovered, according to Arizona State University. Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis discovered it in 1852 and named it after the ancient Greek goddess of the soul.

What makes Psyche especially intriguing to astronomers is its high metal content. There is a possibility that it consists of metal from the core of a planetesimal, which are essential components in the formation of a planetary system.

The asteroid Psyche is located over 500 million kilometres away from Earth, which means it takes approximately 31 minutes for light to traverse that immense distance. NASA anticipates that the Psyche mission will reach the asteroid in approximately six years.

Scientists estimate that the surface area of the Psyche asteroid spans about 165,800 square kilometres. By way of comparison, the Indian state of Tamil Nadu covers a land area of approximately 130,058 square kilometres.

The Psyche mission’s spacecraft will undertake its journey to the asteroid by employing low-thrust solar-electric propulsion. Along the way, it will utilize a Mars fly-by and gravitational assist manoeuvres. Upon its arrival at the asteroid, the spacecraft will conduct scientific observations from four staging orbits around the celestial body. With each orbit, the spacecraft will progressively approach the asteroid, allowing for increasingly detailed study and analysis.

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