Astronomy

Psyche is a Metal World NASA Wants to Visit

Imagine a world made of metal, once the molten core of a planet now demolished in the violence of the cosmos. It sounds like the stuff of sci-fi comic books, but it's awesomely real — and NASA wants to pay it a visit.

So Metal

Psyche (pronounced SYKE-ee) orbits the sun about three times further out than Earth, in an area between Mars and Jupiter. It's big, too: about the size of Massachusetts. It shares real estate with a number of asteroids, but Psyche is different: while other solar system objects are largely made of rock, ice, and gas, this one appears to be entirely nickel and iron. That makes astronomers believe it could be the exposed core of an early planet, and that means knowing more about it could help us know more about how planets form.

"By exploring Psyche, we'll learn about the formation of the planets, how planetary cores are formed and, just as important, we'll be exploring a new type of world," said David Oh, the Psyche mission's lead project systems engineer at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. "We've looked at worlds made of rock, ice and of gas, but we've never had an opportunity to look at a metal world, so this is brand new exploration in the classic style of NASA."

Future Tech

The destination isn't even the coolest part. NASA is going to use some fancy new technology to get us there, including solar electric propulsion (SEP). SEP thrusters work by energizing inert gases like xenon with onboard solar arrays, enabling nonstop thrust that requires much less fuel than conventional chemical propulsion. Less fuel doesn't just mean less money — it also means more room for activities. Using SEP thrusters is going to let scientists pack the probe with a multispectral imager, magnetometer, and gamma-ray spectrometer to fully understand all they can about the asteroid.

The communications technology is new too. The Psyche mission is set to test a technique known as Deep Space Optical Communication (DSOC), which uses lasers instead of radio waves to communicate between the probe and Earth. That sends more information, faster. Metal asteroid, futuristic thrusters, and laser communication — what's not to like?

NASA's New Discovery Missions

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Written By Ashley Hamer October 27, 2017