NASA Launches Mission to Study Distant Asteroid

The metal-rich object could hold clues about how our planet formed

Artist's rendering of an asteroid coated with chunks of metal and with a few craters
An artist's rendition of the Pysche asteroid. Data suggests that Psyche is between 30 and 60 percent metal, unlike any object in the solar system scientist's have observed up close before. NASA / JPL-Caltech / ASU

At 10:19 a.m. Friday, NASA launched an uncrewed spacecraft to study a metal-rich asteroid. Lessons learned from the celestial body could provide insight into the formation of planets.

The Psyche mission, named after the rocky object of interest, will spend the next six years traveling to an asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, where the body resides. Data suggests that the Psyche asteroid could be the exposed core of a building block of a rocky planet. It may be a metallic interior left behind after a rockey outer layer was torn away by collisions with other objects.

“There aren’t many classes of objects left in our solar system that we haven’t looked at up close with a spacecraft, and one of them that’s left is the metal asteroids,” Jim Bell, deputy principal investigator for the Psyche mission, says in a video from NASA.

But scientists won’t know for sure where Psyche originated from until they’re able to observe it up close.

“We do not know what Psyche looks like,” Psyche principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton tells CNN’s Ashley Strickland. “I always joke that it’s shaped like a potato because potatoes come in many shapes, so I’m not wrong. But we’re going to find out when we get there.”

Discovered in 1852 by the Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis, Psyche is named after the ancient Greek goddess of the soul. It measures 173 miles across its horizontal axis and 144 miles long.

Observations from Earth suggest that the asteroid is made of a mixture of rock and iron-nickel metal. Metal likely makes up between 30 and 60 percent of its volume. If Psyche is a remnant core of a planetary building block, it could reveal to scientists what the interiors of rocky planets like Earth are like.

Psyche may be much farther from us than the center of our planet, but it’s easier to study, since we can’t drill holes to the center of Earth.

“It’s too hot, the pressure’s too high, our instruments would melt,” Bell says in NASA’s video.

“This is really an amazing opportunity that the solar system has presented to us to go and learn about this sort of fundamental building block of a planet that we can’t investigate any other way,” Sarah Noble, a NASA program scientist and planetary geologist, tells the Washington Post’s Sabrina Malhi.

The mission launch, originally scheduled for Thursday morning, was pushed back a day due to unfavorable weather conditions. NASA had a single, precise time each day through October 25 at which it could launch Psyche.

The spacecraft will now embark on its 2.2-billion-mile journey to the asteroid. In May 2026, as it approaches Mars, Psyche will use the planet’s gravity to slingshot towards the asteroid belt. The spacecraft will arrive at Psyche in August 2029 and enter into an orbit of the asteroid. It will then spend the next 26 months studying the celestial object in great detail.

The mission will investigate whether the asteroid has a magnetic field, the existence of which would support the theory that Psyche is indeed a leftover planetary core. Spectrometers will measure the asteroid’s chemical makeup, which will provide insight into its formation. An imager will study its mineral composition and topography, and the spacecraft’s telecommunication system will use radio waves to learn about Psyche’s rotation, mass and gravitational field.

It could turn out that Psyche is not a planetary building block and is instead some rare, previously unobserved object from the early solar system, according to NASA.

“It’s going to surprise us when we get there,” Elkins-Tanton tells CNN. “I think there’s a very good chance that it’s going to be outside of our imaginings, and that is my fondest hope.”

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