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Exploring Our Solar System’s Origins With Two New NASA Missions

Artist’s concept of NASA’s newest Discovery Program missions. Lucy (left) will visit six of Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids; Psyche (right) is the first mission to the unique “metal world” of main belt asteroid 16 Psyche. SwRI and SSL/Peter Rubin
Psyche, launching in 2023, is set to encounter its namesake, the asteroid 16 Psyche, in 2030. Unlike the majority of asteroids found in the main belt, which are icy or rocky, the 130-mile (210 km) wide 16 Psyche is metallic, comprised largely of iron and nickel. With a makeup so unlike its neighboring asteroids and so similar to the Earth’s core, astronomers wonder whether 16 Psyche could be the remnants of an early protoplanetary core that has lost its outer rocky layers via collisions. Psyche’s principal investigator, Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University, hopes the mission will shed light on this unique solar system object and help scientists understand how planetary bodies separate into layers over time. Currently, Psyche’s mission plan includes a 20-month mission duration once the spacecraft reaches its destination to map the surface and study its properties.
The data gathered by Lucy and Psyche will add to the ever-sharpening picture of asteroids that other missions such as NEAR, Dawn, and OSIRIS-REx are designed to provide. According to Jim Green, NASA’s Planetary Science Director, “These additional pieces of the puzzle will help us understand how the sun and its family of planets formed, changed over time, and became places where life could develop and be sustained – and what the future may hold.”
NASA’s Discovery Program has been in operation since 1992. Designed to promote missions that complement NASA’s largest “flagship” projects while focusing specifically on solar system science, the Discovery Program consistently launches smaller, less expensive spacecraft with shorter turnaround times. Discovery mission budgets are capped at $450 million, but their “smaller” budgets have in no way limited these missions’ contributions to planetary science. Some of the program’s most famous missions include Lunar Prospector, Stardust, Mars Pathfinder, MESSENGER, and Kepler. The Discovery Program’s core directive also emphasizes education and outreach, bringing the excitement of solar system science and discovery home to the public.
Originally written by Alison Klesman on

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