NASA is taking the next big shot. And it’s sure to make you sit back and go “wow” in wonder. Several missions have explored asteroids before but the newly confirmed NASA mission is aiming at something really big and valuable – a metal-rich asteroid that could be worth quadrillions.

Artist’s concept of Psyche spacecraft. (Image source: JPL, NASA)

NASA’s new mission to explore metal-rich asteroid

A giant metal asteroid known as 16 Psyche, measuring about 130 miles (210 kilometers) in diameter, has been the subject of discussion among NASA members. The intriguing asteroid lies in the main asteroid belt in our solar system and is located three times farther away from the sun than the Earth. The asteroid is intriguing in the sense that it is thought to be composed entirely of metallic iron and nickel with an estimated worth of over $10,000 quadrillion.

As part of Discovery Program, NASA has confirmed two missions with the potential to open up new horizons. The missions – Lucy and Psyche – were among the five finalists chosen for mission formulation. Psyche will attempt to explore the metal-rich asteroid while Lucy, a robotic spacecraft, will build on the success of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt (circumstellar disc in the Solar System beyond the planets consisting mainly of remnants of the Solar System formation) and on the success of OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu. It will visit a target-rich environment of Jupiter’s mysterious Trojan asteroid. “Lucy will visit a target-rich environment of Jupiter’s mysterious Trojan asteroids, while Psyche will study a unique metal asteroid that’s never been visited before. This is what Discovery Program missions are all about – boldly going to places we’ve never been to enable groundbreaking science”, said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate.

Lucy and Psyche launch dates

Lucy is scheduled to launch in October 2021. It will arrive at its first destination in 2025. The first destination will be the main belt asteroid. From 2027 – 2033, Lucy will explore six Jupiter Trojan asteroids. The Trojans, according to NASA, are thought to be relics of a much earlier era in the history of the solar system. Psyche is also a robotic mission and is targeted to launch in October 2023. It will make use of Earth gravity assist spacecraft to maneuver in 2024, Mars flyby in 2025 and arrive at the destination asteroid in 2030. Talking about Psyche, Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe said – “This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world – not one of rock or ice, but of metal. 16 Psyche is the only known object of its kind in the solar system, and this is the only way humans will ever visit a core. We learn about inner space by visiting outer space”.


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