SpaceX to launch NASA mission to Psyche
Falcon Heavy rocket will lift payload to metal-rich asteroid Metal Tech News Weekly Edition – March 4, 2020
Last updated 6/27/2020 at 5:25am
SpaceX will be launching a NASA payload to 16 Psyche, a roughly 173-mile-long asteroid in the belt between Mars and Jupiter that is made up of nickel, iron and other metals.
Currently slated for launch in July 2022, the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket will carry three payloads – equipment to support studies of the metallic asteroid, Escape and Plasma Acceleration and Dynamics Explorers (EscaPADE), which will study the Martian atmosphere, and Janus, which will study binary asteroids.
The costs of these payloads and their delivery to Mars and the asteroid belt is expected to be roughly $117 million, which is a small investment for studying an asteroid that some estimate is made up of up to $700 quintillion worth of metals, which is the equivalent of US$93 billion for every person on Earth.
While the asteroid is known to be almost all metal, so far, we can only speculate at its exact make-up and value. Some put the 16 Psyche value as high as $10 sextillion, which is about $1.3 trillion for everybody on the planet.
NASA believes the reason why Psyche is one big chunk of metal is the asteroid is the core of a planet that met a catastrophic end during our Solar System's distant past.
The Psyche mission aims to understand the building blocks of planet formation by exploring firsthand a wholly new and uncharted type of world. Along with determining whether Psyche is the core of an early planet, NASA's Psyche team wants to determine how old it is, whether it formed in similar ways to Earth's core and what its surface is like.
And, the instruments carried by the Psyche mission spacecraft should help provide a better understanding of the makeup of the asteroid.
NASA said the mission's magnetometer is designed to detect and measure the remnant magnetic field of the asteroid. The multispectral imager aboard the craft will provide high-resolution images using filters to discriminate between Psyche's metallic and silicate constituents. Its gamma ray and neutron spectrometer will detect, measure and map Psyche's elemental composition.
Tim McCoy, a co-investigator of the Psyche mission says ensuring that these instruments are designed correctly is a key aspect to a successful visit to the metallic asteroid.
"That will determine whether we get the data that graduate students 10 years, 20 year, 30 years from now will learn things about this asteroid that we can't even imagine today," he said in a video on the mission.
Launching from the Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral Florida during 2022, the Psyche mission craft laden with scientific equipment is expected to fly by Mars in 2023 and reach its asteroid belt destination in 2026.
Settling into an orbit around 16 Psyche, the scientific objectives of the mission are to:
• Determine whether the asteroid is a planetary core, or unmelted metals and other material.
• Determine the relative ages of regions of Psyche's surface.
• Determine whether small metal bodies incorporate the same light elements as are expected in the Earth's high-pressure core.
• Determine whether Psyche was formed under conditions more oxidizing or more reducing than Earth's core.
• Characterize Psyche's topography.
This mission is expected to produce massive amounts of scientific data and NASA will be testing a sophisticated new laser communications technology, called Deep Space Optical Communications, to transmit that information back to Earth. This communications system encodes data in protons of light instead of the traditional radio waves, which will allow the spacecraft to communicate more data in a shorter amount of time.
While this information will help NASA scientists gain a better understanding of Earth and our Solar System, without a doubt mining companies with their sights set on space will be interested in knowing a lot more about Psyche.
Mining of such metal-rich extraterrestrial bodies currently remains in the realm of science fiction, but it is conceivable that precious metals such as platinum and gold could be shipped back from asteroids such as Psyche and other metals could be used to further mankind's space exploration and colonization.
And private companies are increasingly becoming Solar System corporations, as witnessed by SpaceX being awarded the contract to launch this intriguing scientific mission to 16 Psyche.