NASA will be heading to a metal world.
The space agency announced on Wednesday that a spacecraft namedPsyche would visit an asteroid named Psyche, one of two new missions it will be launching into the solar system in the 2020s.
“For the purpose of simplicity, and out of our initial excitement, we just named our mission directly after what we’re going to visit,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of the Arizona State University school of earth and space exploration, who will serve as the mission’s principal investigator.
From radar observations, Psyche the asteroid appears ellipsoid in shape, about as wide as Massachusetts. It is also quite dense, with estimates of 200 to 450 pounds per cubic foot, which is much denser than most asteroids. (By comparison, the average density of Earth is 344 pounds per cubic foot.)
Psyche is also very bright, adding to suspicions that it is made of metal. “Humankind has visited rocky worlds and icy worlds and worlds made of gas, but we have never seen a metal world,” Dr. Elkins-Tanton said. “It’s the only roundish, fairly spherical metal body in our solar system. Not only is it unique, it’s improbable.”
Planetary scientists like Dr. Elkins-Tanton think it is the nickel-iron core of a small planet that was bashed to pieces early in the history of the solar system. A trip to Psyche could reveal clues about what is at the center of Earth, something scientists will never be able to observe directly.
Lucy, the other mission NASA selected on Wednesday, will also explore asteroids. Named after the fossil of a hominid ancestor of humans that lived more than three million years ago, Lucy is to launch in 2021 and then fly by six asteroids that are thought to be relics of the solar system, completing its mission in 2033. Its targets are the Trojans, asteroids that have been captured by Jupiter’s gravity and now share the same orbit around the sun as Jupiter.