NASA Just Went Bananas Over Future Asteroid Missions


Say hello and Happy New Year to Lucy and Psyche: two new NASA missions geared towards studying asteroids more in depth and push our understanding of rocks in the solar system to new heights. Lucy will be tasked with studying the Jupiter Trojans — a group of asteroids sharing Jupiters obit around the sun — while Psyche will study 16 Psyche, one of the ten most massive asteroids in the asteroid belt which is thought to be almost entirely made of metal.

Also, the agency threw some more money to the Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam), a proposed space telescope designed to scan the solar system for asteroids and other objects which could be devastating to Earth in the event of a collision.

The two missions fall under NASA’s Discovery Program, a series of low-cost projects meant to advance an understanding of the solar system. There have been 12 Discovery missions in the last 22 years — recent ones include Dawn, which is studying protoplanets in the asteroid belt, and the Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter. Lucy and Psyche are the 13th and 14th, respectively. NASA is “delighted to have the opportunity to select two Discovery missions,’ Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Director, told reporters on Wednesday.

It might not seem so obvious right now, but asteroids are going to be insanely vital to the future of space travel. We’re going to be mining these babies for precious metals and water; turning these rocks into satellites with specific purposes, or even potential outposts for refueling or repairing spacecraft en route to distant worlds; and we’ll also need to figure out how to push those buggers out of Earth’s way.

Lucy principal investigator Harold Levison, a planetary scientist at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, explained at Wednesday’s press conference that the Jupiter Trojans are thought to be extremely valuable in understand the origins of the solar system. The Trojans are “a very diverse population, in their color, [and] in their spectra.” They’re thought to hail from different regions of the solar system before the system was actually coming together, and ended up migrating towards a stable reservoir near Jupiter’s orbit.

“We believe that’s telling us something something about how the solar system formed and evolved,” said Levison. “These small bodies are really the fossils of the solar system.” In fact, the mission is named after the famous ‘Lucy’ skeleton.

The robotic Lucy spacecraft will launch sometime in October 2021, and first rendezvous with a main-belt asteroid in 2025. Two years later, Lucy will encounter its first Trojan, and study six in total until the primary mission ends in 2033, and its possible NASA will extend the mission in order to further study objects in the Jovian system. The spacecraft will carry a slew of instruments designed to image the surface and analyze the varied composition of each Trojan — many of which are already being used in some form for [OSIRIS-REx] and New Horizons.

Although Psyche is also doing asteroid research, its mission involves an entirely different ballgame. The mission’s principal investigator, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe, Arizona, is stoked for the opportunity to study something completely new. “We have never seen a metal world,” she said.

That metallic world, 16 Psyche, is 130 miles in diameter. About three times farther away the sun than Earth is, 16 Psyche is thought to a metal core of a former planet, probably destroyed when the solar system was just one percent its current age. The Psyche mission’s goal is to better characterize and understand the layers of planets as they form. This could be the only way humans ever study a planet’s core — and the insight could shed a great deal of light in how Earth itself formed.

In addition, Psyche could be critical for the burgeoning world of asteroid mining — in which precious metals could be acquired by drilling into such metallic asteroids. Psyche “turns out to be more timely than we thought,” said Elkins-Tanton. She believes the variety of geological and compositional data Psyche acquires could be very useful in understanding the landiing challenges to future mining missions, and determining which parts of the asteroid possess what kinds of materials of interest.

Psyche will launch in October 2023, but won’t get to 16 Psyche until 2030. However, the spacecraft will be fitted with solar electric propulsion — a technology many are looking at as a way to make human space travel more sustainable and less costly. Psyche will spend about 12 months orbiting the asteroid and collecting as much data as possible.

It’s going to be quite a while before these missions pay off with real, practical data, but if they live up to their potential, they could be a groundbreaking force in ushering in a new world of asteroid-based space travel.

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