NASA’s Psyche Mission: A Monumental Journey to a Metallic Asteroid

by Tatsuya Nakamura
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NASA Milestones

NASA’s Psyche Mission: A Monumental Journey to a Metallic Asteroid

The Psyche mission, strongly affiliated with MIT, is designed to explore a metal-abundant asteroid situated between Mars and Jupiter, which is thought to be the exposed core of a primordial planet. Researchers from MIT are integral to the mission’s investigations on magnetism and gravity. The probe is outfitted with a magnetometer, cameras, and a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer, all essential for uncovering the asteroid’s compositional and magnetic secrets. (Visual depiction by artist of asteroid Psyche close-up. Credit: Peter Rubin/ASU)

This NASA initiative, deeply linked to MIT, aims to reach a metal-laden celestial body, potentially the leftover core of a planet akin to Earth.

On the 13th of October, the spacecraft Psyche was launched and is now en route to this metallic celestial body.

Psyche, a vehicle the size of a van and equipped with solar panels resembling wings, was launched via a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket at 10:19 a.m. Eastern Time. Its destination is an asteroid, also named Psyche, which revolves around the sun in the primary asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Astronomers posit that the Psyche asteroid, approximately the size of the state of Massachusetts, is predominantly metallic. If so, it could be the unveiled core of a young planet, and might contain insights into the formation of Earth’s own metal-rich core.

“It’s a complex riddle. You need to understand not just how the pieces interlock, but also what those pieces actually are,” states MIT Research Scientist Jodie Ream, who contributed to the design of the magnetometer.

The Psyche spacecraft took off from Florida’s Kennedy Space Center, propelled by a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, at 10:19 a.m. EDT on Friday, October 13, 2023. This landmark mission will probe a metal-abundant asteroid located in the primary asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It marks NASA’s inaugural mission to a celestial body containing more metal than rock or ice. Alongside Psyche, NASA’s Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) experiment is also onboard, marking the first test of laser communications beyond lunar orbit. Credit: SpaceX

Details of the Journey and MIT’s Involvement

After its departure from Kennedy Space Center, the spacecraft will undergo a six-year voyage through interplanetary space. By 2026, Psyche will approach Mars, utilizing the planet’s gravity to catapult itself towards the asteroid. The spacecraft is expected to reach Psyche in 2029 and will spend an additional 26 months examining the asteroid’s surface, mapping its gravity and studying any existing magnetic fields.

MIT scientists are at the forefront of the mission’s magnetic and gravity research. The initiative has longstanding ties to MIT, with its principal investigator being MIT alumnus and former professor Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who is currently a professor at Arizona State University. The deputy principal investigator is Benjamin Weiss, a professor of planetary science at MIT. Elkins-Tanton leads a team that includes MIT veterans on this unprecedented mission to a metallic world.

“It is incredibly exhilarating and highly privileged to be able to pioneer the exploration of a novel type of celestial body,” states Elkins-Tanton. “However, the most rewarding part is creating and supporting a vast team of individuals all committed to this mutual quest.”

The spacecraft aims to reach an asteroid believed to be largely metallic, which could offer unparalleled insights into early planetary development. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech/ASU

Speculation on Psyche’s Origins

Scientists theorize that Psyche might be a case of arrested planetary evolution. While planets like Earth continued to accumulate material around their metal-rich cores about 4.5 billion years ago, Psyche might have suffered multiple collisions, stripping it of its rocky mantle and leaving an exposed metallic core. This core could hold elements that were also integral in forming Earth’s center.

“This is the inaugural mission to a celestial body that isn’t primarily rock or ice but is metallic,” notes Weiss. “Asteroids are the building blocks of planets, so this asteroid could potentially tell us about planetary formation.”

The mission’s inception occurred during a fortuitous conversation between Weiss and Elkins-Tanton in 2010 at MIT. The dialogue centered on Weiss’s study of the Allende meteorite, a celestial object that had fallen to Earth. The conversation eventually led to a mission concept to explore an exposed planetary core, concluding that the asteroid Psyche would be the ideal target for such a study.

Research Instruments and Findings

The spacecraft will be equipped with a magnetometer to detect signs of ancient magnetic fields that may be imprinted on Psyche’s surface layers; a set of cameras to capture images and identify visual indicators of metal on the asteroid’s surface; and a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer to measure the asteroid’s emissions, thereby revealing the types of metallic elements on its surface.

To facilitate communication, the spacecraft will also have a communications system that will be primarily used for data transmission and command reception. Additionally, a scientific team led by MIT’s Maria Zuber will utilize this system to conduct a study on gravity. The team will analyze the asteroid’s gravitational influence on the spacecraft and its radio signals, thereby mapping the asteroid’s gravitational field, which will provide insights into its composition.

Led by Weiss, the magnetometer investigation involves several MIT contributors and was engineered by researchers at the Technical University of Denmark. The design includes two sensors placed on an arm-like extension to separate any magnetic signal emanating from the asteroid itself from surrounding interference.

To decipher any magnetic fields detected, a simulated library of magnetic field patterns has been prepared by the MIT team.

Looking Forward

MIT Research Scientist Rona Oran states, “Space is a complex environment, influenced by magnetic fields emanating from various celestial bodies. Our simulated library will enable us to assess diverse scenarios so that we can accurately discern the asteroid’s genuine magnetic field once we arrive.”

The team will have numerous opportunities to fine-tune their simulated library and deepen their understanding of the magnetic fields surrounding the spacecraft as it travels towards the asteroid. After the launch, the magnetometer will be activated and will continuously record data, which will be sent back to two MIT data centers for analysis.

“This marks the first time our group is spearheading a scientific investigation on a spacecraft,” notes Weiss. “The launch initiates a period of heightened responsibility and exceptional excitement.”

Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about NASA’s Psyche mission

What is NASA’s Psyche mission?

NASA’s Psyche mission is an exploratory project that aims to study a metal-rich asteroid named Psyche, located in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The spacecraft was launched on October 13 and is expected to reach the asteroid in 2029 for a 26-month survey.

Who are the key contributors to this mission?

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) plays a crucial role, with scientists leading magnetic field and gravity studies for the mission. Lindy Elkins-Tanton, an MIT alumna and former professor, is the principal investigator, while Benjamin Weiss, an MIT professor, serves as the deputy principal investigator.

What instruments will the spacecraft use for the exploration?

The Psyche spacecraft is equipped with a magnetometer to study magnetic fields, cameras for visual imagery, and a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer to analyze the asteroid’s composition.

What is the primary objective of studying the asteroid Psyche?

The asteroid is believed to be the exposed core of a primitive planet. Studying its composition and magnetic properties could provide significant insights into the formation of planetary cores, including Earth’s.

What is the timeline for the Psyche mission?

After its launch on October 13, the spacecraft will go on a six-year interplanetary journey. It will approach Mars in 2026, utilizing the planet’s gravitational pull for a slingshot effect that will propel it to the asteroid. It is expected to arrive at the asteroid in 2029 and will spend 26 months conducting its survey.

Is this NASA’s first mission to study a metal-rich asteroid?

Yes, this is NASA’s first mission focused on studying an asteroid that is predominantly metal rather than rock or ice.

What is the Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) experiment associated with the mission?

The DSOC is a pioneering technology demonstration that will test laser communications beyond the Moon for the first time.

What are some hypotheses about the origin of asteroid Psyche?

Scientists speculate that Psyche may represent a case of “planetary arrested development,” potentially retaining elements that formed Earth’s core. It may have suffered multiple collisions early in its history, stripping it of its rocky surface and leaving behind a metal core.

How are the mission’s findings expected to impact our understanding of planetary formation?

The mission aims to provide a unique view into the early stages of planet formation by examining a body believed to be an exposed planetary core. It could offer clues about how metal-rich cores form and evolve.

How will the mission data be processed and analyzed?

Data will be downlinked to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) and transmitted to two data processing centers at MIT for analysis by a team led by scientists at MIT.

More about NASA’s Psyche mission

  • NASA’s Psyche Mission Overview
  • Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Role in Psyche Mission
  • Instruments Onboard the Psyche Spacecraft
  • Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) Experiment
  • NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) Data Management

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