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NASA announced this week its Psyche mission "passed a critical milestone bringing it closer to its 2022 launch date." The mission aims to explore a 140-miles-wide metal-rich asteroid called '16-Psyche.' The agency is developing a robotic spacecraft -‘Psyche’- that will be launched atop SpaceX’s Falcon 9 rocket on a voyage towards an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. In February, the agency awarded SpaceX was the launch service contract to conduct the Psyche mission. “Falcon Heavy will launch NASA Psyche! 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,” SpaceX stated.
The Falcon Heavy rocket is the world's most powerful rocket's in operation capable of lifting and propelling payload into deep-space destinations. The launch is scheduled for August 2022. Falcon Heavy will lift off from historic Launch Complex 39A at the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral, Florida, carrying the Psyche spacecraft towards the 16-Psyche asteroid.
Psyche, @NASA's mission to explore a metal-rich asteroid, passed a crucial milestone bringing it closer to its 2022 launch date. It's moving from planning to high-gear manufacturing of the spacecraft that'll fly to the asteroid belt between Mars & Jupiter. https://t.co/RVeJwULwmq pic.twitter.com/4G1XYnfZdI— NASA JPL (@NASAJPL) July 7, 2020
This week, NASA officials shared the Psyche mission plans just passed the Critical Design Review (CDR) phase. During a CDR, the agency assesses every single aspect of a mission, including the robotic spacecraft’s technical features. Passing the CDR means scientists and engineers get the green light on the spacecraft’s design to proceed development. Psyche principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton, managing director and co-chair of the Interplanetary Initiative at Arizona State University, stated:
“It's one of the most intense reviews a mission goes through in its entire life cycle. And we passed with flying colors. The challenges are not over, and we're not at the finish line, but we're running strong.”
Now, engineers can initiate building the spacecraft’s hardware and develop the software. The asteroid will be investigated using three science instruments: a multispectral imager, a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer, and a magnetometer. NASA says it expects instruments to be assembled and ready for testing by February 2021. Then, the development of the spacecraft will initiate.
NASA astronomers have a great interest in the 16-Psyche asteroid because it is composed of metallic iron and nickel – one of the building blocks of our solar system, a composition similar to Earth’s core. They believe the asteroid could offer insight into the early years of our solar system. 16-Psyche is 95% metal, believed to be a nickel-iron core of an ancient planet, whose rocky outer layers were stripped away by cosmic impacts. Terrestrial planets like Earth, have metallic cores lying below the rocky surface, deep within rocky mantles. On Earth, scientists can't dig too deep to study the core because machinery would melt. So, the mission could offer insight into how planets evolve. NASA explains:
“Because we cannot see or measure Earth’s core directly, the mission to Psyche offers a unique window into the violent history of collisions and accretion that created terrestrial planets.”
The $850 million Psyche mission will provide scientists with valuable knowledge to understand how planets form, and give insight about the early stages of our solar system. The spacecraft will also feature a technology called “Deep Space Optical Communication”, which is an experimental instrument that aims to transmit data to Earth using photons. The agency says it could provide a more efficient way to transmit data to Earth than traditional radio-wave communications.