Status: 22/09/2023, 05:01 a.m.
By: Josefin Schröder
Nasa is preparing to launch a new mission. A probe is to explore the asteroid Psyche. It is considered to be particularly rich in raw materials and could bring in a lot of money.
Cape Canaveral – At the beginning of October, NASA will launch a new, unmanned mission. The launch will take place at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida, and the destination of the journey is an asteroid called Psyche – a particularly lucrative destination because of its raw material deposits.
Aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launch vehicle, the probe will lift off at 5:10 a.m. local time on Oct. 38. Lindy Elkins-Tanton, a planetary scientist and professor at Arizona State University, is leading the Psyche mission, which was already announced for August 2022 and was postponed due to problems with the flight software. Now the $1.2 billion mission seems to be becoming a reality after all.
At the same time, the space company has to face accusations of having discovered and killed life on Mars. This is the assumption of a researcher.
NASA mission to psyche asteroid made of precious metals
But back to the Psyche mission: Powered by xenon gas, equipped with solar cells and complex measuring instruments, the spacecraft is ready for use. All four engines have been checked, Nasa said in a statement. The flight to the asteroid will take six years. For this purpose, the Nasa probe was refueled with 1085 kilograms of xenon. According to the online magazine Space.com, Nasa is using the "Falcon Heavy" type of rocket for the first time. The rocket has only been launched seven times so far.
The spacecraft is equipped with a huge antenna that is intended to amplify data transmission. Scientific instruments such as a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer and a magnetometer will be used to study the magnetic field and the neutrons and gamma rays emanating from the surface, according to NASA's mission description.
Nasa's Psyche spacecraft is being prepared. © IMAGO/JOE MARINO
What makes the metal asteroid Psyche so valuable?
The nature of the asteroid is also analyzed from an increasingly close orbit with a multispectral imager. To do this, the probe will approach the metal surface of the asteroid at up to 64 kilometers. The research group hopes that this will provide new insights into the formation of planets in general.
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Fancy a voyage of discovery?
The asteroid, whose name goes back to Psyche, the Greek goddess of the soul, is located in the asteroid belt of the solar system, between the planets Mars and Jupiter. According to Nasa, the minor planet is about 279 kilometers in size. Its origin is largely unknown. The research team assumes that it is the core of a planetsimal, a building block of an earlier planet, which in turn gave rise to rocky planets such as Earth and Mars.
Asteroid mining in space still a long way off
The special thing about the asteroid: Unlike the majority of planets, which mostly consist of rock or ice, Psyche is said to contain a particularly large number of metals, especially iron, nickel and gold – even worth 10 trillion dollars, Lindy Elkins-Tanton calculated a few years ago. However, this figure should not be taken seriously, the researcher said at a recent press conference.
The illustration shows what it might look like when the Nasa spacecraft orbits the asteroid Psyche. © IMAGO
"We don't have the technology to bring psyche to Earth. And if we did, it would probably be a catastrophic mistake," the scientist added. "We're not going there to mine an asteroid."
However, another asteroid is coming back to Earth – at least samples of it. NASA's Osiris-Rex spacecraft delivers samples from the asteroid Bennu. Research has been waiting for this for a long time.
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Research team hopes to gain insights into the metal core of planets
After arriving at the asteroid Psyche in August 2029, the probe will orbit the asteroid for about 26 months, providing scientists with images and numerous data.
What it looks like on the asteroid, none of the experts knows. "One possibility is that the metallic surface of Psyche is covered by tiny, spiny, shell-shaped micrometeorite impacts in metal, from which tiny grains of metal have flown away," says Lindy Elkins-Tanton. And further: "We expect part of the surface to be metal and part not to be." But what is the non-metallic part? Stone? Sulfur? The mission will tell. (Josefin Schröder)