NASA Creating a New Spacecraft to Prevent Extinction-Level Earth-Bound Asteroid Impact




NASA is working to get a spacecraft to an asteroid before one strikes Earth. The space agency's Discovery Program, aimed at improving our understanding of the solar system by exploring planets, moons and other celestial bodies, announced last month that it had selected two asteroid-centric missions to launch in the next decade. One of the missions involves sending a spacecraft to Psyche, an asteroid named after the Greek goddess of the soul that is made entirely of metal. Scientists say metal asteroids are one of the last remaining things in our solar system that they have never seen up close.

"We've looked at rocky planets, gas giants, icy planets, rocky asteroids, comets – but never anything like this," said Jim Bell, a professor of planetary science at Arizona State University, where a team of scientists is leading the Psyche mission. The scientists believe the asteroid may be the metal core of a planet that was stripped of its rocky outer layers when it was destroyed billions of years ago.


Like Psyche, most are in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter that contains between 1.1 million and 1.9 million asteroids larger than a half-mile in diameter, plus millions of smaller ones.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the Arizona team's principal investigator, recently told Space News that visiting Psyche will allow scientists to "literally visit a planetary core – the only way that humankind ever can." Psyche's metallic iron and nickel composition is similar to Earth's core, so studying the asteroid may help scientists understand how planets' layers – such as cores and crusts – separate.


Bell, Elkins-Tanton's second-in-command, will be in charge of obtaining color images of the asteroid and figuring out its surface geology from the images. "We don't know what to expect regarding impact craters or tectonic features," Bell said. "Our predictions are all over the map of Dr. Seuss-like landscapes."

The mission, set to launch from Florida's Kennedy Space Center in 2023, hopes to use data collected from the metallic asteroid to help scientists learn about how planets with cores like Psyche formed during the early days of our solar system.

Team member Erik Asphaug, says he yearns to understand the geology of an entirely metallic body: "Was there ever water on Psyche? Is there evidence for chemical processes? Plate tectonics?"

"We're also trying to figure out what these kinds of asteroids are like, to inform us about others like it that could be a threat to Earth in the future," says Bell.

The Arizona team says it will take five to seven years for the mission's spacecraft to get to the asteroid – which is 130 miles in diameter – and then it will spend one year collecting data as it orbits the asteroid.
Bell's imaging camera, along with a gamma ray neutron detector to detect the asteroid's composition and a magnetometer to detect its magnetic fields, will also be making the journey. Information will be relayed back via a radio antenna on the spacecraft that communicates with the deep-space network antennas on Earth.

The responsibility of building the shuttle-bus-size spacecraft that will travel to Psyche falls to Space Systems Loral, or SSL – a 60-year-old company that constructs and launches commercial communications satellites for companies such as Sirius XM and DirecTV.

The spacecraft will be built in conjunction with NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, which will later integrate the scientific instruments and computer "brain." Bob Mase, deputy project manager for the Psyche mission at JPL, called it a "tag-team effort that leverages both parties' strengths."

The Daily Galaxy via Arizona State University and The Mercury News

Image credit: NASA/JPL 


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