An American Space Agency (NASA) spacecraft has left Earth to visit one of the Solar System’s most peculiar objects.
NASA Launches Mission to Unlock Secrets of Metal Asteroid Psyche and nickel.
Scientists believe it is the leftover core of a planet-like object whose outer rocky layers have been stripped away.
The investigation spacecraft, Psyche, was launched from Cape Canaveral in Florida.
A Falcon-Heavy rocket lifted off at 10:19:43 a.m. local time (14:19 GMT; 15:19 BST) to launch the probe on a six-year, 3.5-billion-kilometre (2.2 billion miles) trek to its target, which lies between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.
Scientists anticipate that their quarry will be full of surprises. Only nine of the Solar System’s million-and-a-known asteroids appear to share some of Psyche’s features – and the targeted body is by far the largest, measuring around 280km (175 miles) at its widest point.
“The big thrill is that we’re going to see a kind of world that humans have never seen before,” said Arizona State University principal investigator Prof Lindy Elkins-Tanton.
“We don’t have any close-up photos of it; we have no idea what it looks like.” “That, to me, is the essence of exploration: people always want to see what they haven’t seen yet,” she told to the Press.
When the spacecraft gets to the asteroid in August 2029, it will orbit at various distances – the shortest being approximately 75km (47 miles) – to map its form and identify its internal structure and composition.
The images will undoubtedly be fascinating.
Metal items struck by small, fast-moving micrometeoroids in space will likely develop a spiky appearance over time. These collisions may have even created a type of metal sand that now covers Psyche’s surface.
Although scientists have found that iron and nickel dominate the asteroid, telescopes have detected additional components. These could be sulphur-rich yellowish-green rocks. One peculiar aspect could be the presence of metal cliffs generated as Psyche cooled, shrunk, and broke over the Solar System’s 4.6-billion-year life.
According to Deputy Principal Investigator Ben Weiss, there are two primary theories as to how Psyche came to be.
“One is that it’s a core of a body analogous to like what is inside the Earth – the molten metallic centre of the Earth and other large planets. But in this case, Psyche had its outer layers stripped off by asteroid impacts in the early Solar System, so we can see its surface today,” explained the Massachusetts Institute of Technology expert.
“And the other idea is that Psyche is a kind of primordial unmelted body, basically formed of the very first materials in the Solar System that came together under gravity and it was then preserved in this primordial state ever since.”
All four of the 2.7-tonne NASA spacecraft’s instruments will be required to determine the truth. Still, if Psyche is the exposed core of a failed planet, it could be expected to have a “fossil” magnetic field – an imprint from the time when its metal was molten and convecting, behaving exactly like the dynamo that produces the magnetic field in Earth’s liquid core today.
Metal meteorites that fall to Earth are thought to be from objects like Psyche.
Many individuals believe that because of their composition, we could someday mine them in space. Psyche could be worth trillions of dollars as a resource.
However, Dr Helena Bates, a meteorite expert at London’s Natural History Museum, believes such a business still needs to catch up.
“I think asteroid mining is most valuable if you think about it in terms of extending space missions,” she said in an interview with Press.
“So, you send a spacecraft up to a near-Earth asteroid where it picks up some material that it can convert into fuel, and then it can transfer to a more profound space mission. That’s where asteroid mining could be crucial for the future of space travel.”
Psyche is too far away. Even at its closest approach, it is still 250 million kilometres (155 million miles) from Earth, which is three times farther than Mars is at closest approach, and the metal world on the far side of the Solar System is 650 million kilometres (405 million miles) away.
On the trip, NASA will test two technologies it expects to utilize more extensively.
One example is electric propulsion. To create persistent thrust, the spacecraft will employ solar power to excite and accelerate a stream of xenon gas.
The other involves the employment of laser beams to boost data transmission rates.
The mission team promises that all imagery from Psyche will be available to the public within half an hour of its arrival on Earth.
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