(CTN News) – The world is unlike any other: a NASA metal-rich asteroid that may have been the remnant of a small planet or may even be an entirely new type of celestial body not yet known to science.
A NASA spacecraft blasted off Friday from the Kennedy Space Center on its way to the planet Psyche, which is 2.2 billion miles (3.6 billion kilometers) away and could provide information about the interior of planets.
In the months leading up to the launch on a reusable SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket at 10:19 am Eastern Time (1419 GMT), NASA chief Bill Nelson said, “We’re going to learn all kinds of new things, how these things fly through the solar system, they hit each other, and they cause the evolution of our solar system today.”
“We have visited worlds made of rock, ice, and gas, but this will be our first trip to a world with a metal surface,” lead scientist Lindy Elkins-Tanton said this week.
In July 2029, the van-sized probe will arrive at its destination in the Asteroid Belt, between Mars and Jupiter, trailing a blue glow from its next-generation electric propulsion system.
NASA’s research on rocky planet cores
It will deploy its suite of advanced instruments over the next two years to search for evidence of an ancient magnetic field and to investigate Psyche’s chemical and mineral composition as well as its topography.
According to scientists, Psyche may be part of the iron-nickel core of a planetesimal, one of the basic building blocks of rocky planets, that has been left exposed following an ancient collision.
Alternatively, it may be an object from the primordial solar system that has not yet been discovered.
The core can only be seen in this manner, said Elkins-Tanton. To be tongue-in-cheek, we say that we are NASA exploring inner space in outer space.
At its widest point, Psyche measures 173 miles (280 kilometers) across-though it has not been observed closely.
Scientists had previously believed it was overwhelmingly composed of metal, but reflected radar and light analyses indicate that metal probably comprises between 30-60 percent, with the rest being rock.
Electric propulsion powered by solar energy
Several technological innovations will be included in the mission.
NASA plans to experiment with laser-based communications using the Psyche spacecraft, named after the asteroid. This would be similar to upgrading old telephone lines on Earth to fiber optics.
“Deep Space Optical Communications,” as the system is known, “was designed to demonstrate 10 to 100 times the data-return capacity of current space radio systems,” said Abi Biswas of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
It also employs a type of propulsion system known as “Hall-effect thrusters,” which uses solar panels to generate electric and magnetic fields which expel charged atoms of xenon gas.
It exerts approximately the same amount of thrust as a single AA battery in your hand. As a result, the spacecraft will accelerate continuously at tens of thousands of miles per hour in the void of space.
As a result, thousands of pounds of chemical fuel will not be required to be carried into space, and Psyche will be the first mission to use such systems beyond the lunar orbit.