Is asteroid Psyche really a piece of metal? Is there an object as wide as Massachusetts, the core of a baby planet whose rocky outer layers were torn off during a cataclysmic collision in the early days of the solar system?
Now, all astronomers can say is maybe, maybe not.
NASA launched a spacecraft Friday morning to explore the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, also named Psyche.
“We’re actually going to see a new kind of object, which means a lot of our assumptions are going to be proven wrong,” said Lindy Elkins-Daunton, associate professor of Earth and space exploration at Arizona State University. Principal Investigator of the work.
Being proven wrong, “I think is the most exciting thing in science.”
That quest for answers began Friday at 10:19 a.m. ET. The Falcon Heavy, the largest of SpaceX’s operational rockets, lifted off from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, sending the massive spacecraft into space.
Friday’s flight defied unfavorable weather forecasts for a seemingly flawless flight. An hour after launch, the Psyche spacecraft separated from the upper stage of the Falcon Heavy rocket. A video stream from NASA showed the vehicle traveling through the darkness beyond Earth, setting off on an excursion that will last about six years and cover billions of miles.
About five minutes later, in the control room at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory complex in California, the mission’s managers applauded when they received the initial signal from the spacecraft.
Asteroid Psyche has long been an intriguing puzzle. Discovered by Italian astronomer Annibale di Casparis in 1852, it is named for the Greek goddess of the soul, and is the 16th asteroid to be discovered. In early observations, it was a star-like point of light moving in an orbit around the Sun, like other asteroids, and nothing more.
In the early 1960s, in telescope observations, astronomers found that the soul’s color was similar to iron meteorites that had fallen to Earth, said Jim Bell, a professor of Earth and space studies at Arizona State University. The spacecraft’s camera instrument. Astronomers bounced radar pulses off Psyche, and the reflections back to Earth were brighter than those from other smaller objects in the asteroid belt.
“It’s clear that some components of the surface are highly radar reflective,” Dr. Bell said. “The easiest way to do that is with pieces of metal.”
When scientists noticed that Psyche was approaching relatively large worlds, its orbit was deflected, making it much larger and much denser than rock.
Most rocks such as granite have a density of two to three grams per cubic centimeter. One gram per cubic centimeter of water, whether liquid or ice. Metals like iron are dense at six to nine grams per cubic centimeter.
“Some of those initial assessments were like, ‘Wow, this is very unusual,'” said Dr. Bell said.
Psyche seemed almost pure metal. Earth’s core is composed of iron and nickel, and Psyche’s measurements led to the idea that it might be the remnants of a similar core that belonged to a baby planet. Such worlds where the temperature is high enough for dense metals to melt and fall into the core are called planets.
It’s impossible to probe the core of an Earth-like planet 1,800 miles below the surface, but a visit to Psyche could provide more information about what lies at the core of our planet.
Or maybe that hypothesis is completely wrong.
“The soul can be quite different than that,” Dr. Elkins-Daunton said. “I want to be completely surprised.”
More recent measurements have led to lower estimates of the asteroid’s density, just under four grams per cubic centimeter: still denser than rock and ice, but not as dense as metal. This suggests that Psyche is made of metal and something else: maybe rock, maybe empty space.
“My best guess is that it’s about half the metal based on the data we have,” Dr Elkins-Tanton said.
If Psyche turns out to be rich in precious metals, it’s too far away for anyone to mine using current technologies. Dr. Psycho is 150 million miles from Earth, which is five times the distance from Earth to Mars, Elkins-Daunton noted. Closest approach possible.
The Psych mission was scheduled to launch a year earlier. The shuttle had already been sent to the Kennedy Space Center. But there were problems testing the navigation software that guided the spacecraft through the solar system. These stem from incompatibilities between the aircraft software and the programs used to verify it. Engineers don’t have time to fix issues before the release window closes.
A Independent study Leadership changes, communication failures, heavy workloads and the Covid-19 pandemic contributed to “an environment where missions like Psych are not receiving the attention they need to handle passengers and veterans,” the NASA-commissioned missed launch concluded. The workforce challenges they face.”
The plan for 2023 was to get back on track by hiring new staff, reducing remote work and implementing other recommendations of the review.
There were other bumps along the way to the launch pad. Psyche was scheduled to launch on October 5, but the launch was delayed again after tests revealed that the cold nitrogen gas, used to orient the spacecraft during flight, produced higher-than-expected temperatures. NASA officials said they resolved the problem by planning to operate the thrusters Low power levels They prevent overheating in space.
Once launched, the Psyche spacecraft will head for Mars, swing by the Red Planet in May 2026 and use its gravity to slingshot toward the Psyche asteroid, traveling 2.2 billion miles and arriving in August 2029.
During its journey, the Psyche laser will exchange messages with Earth An experiment called Deep Space Optical Communications. Current spacecraft communicate using radio waves, but switching to lasers could increase the bandwidth of deep space transmissions by 100 times. The laser experiment will provide the first demonstration of this novel technology far beyond the Moon.
When it reaches the asteroid, the spacecraft will spend at least 26 months in orbit, studying the psyche with a variety of instruments.
The mission’s cameras, called multispectral imagers, will provide the first close-up look at Psyche, revealing surface features that cannot be observed from Earth. A magnetometer on the spacecraft could be embedded in the asteroid’s terrain, looking for signs of an ancient magnetic field, perhaps driven by Earth’s core.
A gamma-ray spectrometer detects high-energy gamma rays and neutrons produced when cosmic rays hit the asteroid’s surface. These particles contain information about the composition and distribution of metal and rock in Psyche’s otherworldly landscape.
Finally, the spacecraft’s radio antenna is used to map the asteroid’s gravitational field by measuring small changes in the frequency of the signal’s Doppler shift, which rises as it moves toward Earth and falls as it moves away. The experiment could detect differences in density within the asteroid, which could shed light on its origin.
“No single instrument can tell us whether a soul is a core,” said Ben Weiss, the mission’s deputy principal investigator. Press conference on Thursday. “It’s the combined data from these different tools.”
For more than 170 years, Psyche has been a small light in the sky. Telescopes have revealed stunning views of its dimensions and features, but the nature of this unique world is otherwise a mystery. The Psyche spacecraft is now on its way to bring this asteroid into sharp focus for the first time and solve the mystery of its origin.