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NASA’s mission to a planetary core has been moved up

The craft to Psyche will launch a year earlier and get to its target four years early.
PIA214992017052316
An artist's impression of the Psyche spacecraft that will study the metal-cored asteroid.
SSL/ASU/P. Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA’s Discovery mission to a smashed protoplanet core will reach its target four years early after a new launch date. Instead of launching in 2023, the craft will now in launch in 2022 and will reach its target, the asteroid Psyche, by 2026.

Psyche orbits the Sun between Mars and Jupiter and thanks to its component of nickel-iron metal, studying it will give scientists a closer look at the space collisions that create planets. Psyche was the 16th asteroid discovered, but it will be the first world scientists explore made of metal instead of rock or ice. Psyche’s metal core means at one point in time the asteroid was likely a protoplanet, or a large body of matter that turns into a planet, that had repeated collisions that resulted in leaving just the metal core.  

After some consideration, NASA reached out to the Psyche team to see if it would be possible to rework the spacecraft to get an earlier launch date. A 2022 launch will perch the Psyche craft well for a Mars assist in 2023. That assist will help get the craft to Psyche four years ahead of schedule.

“The biggest advantage is the excellent trajectory, which gets us there about twice as fast and is more cost effective,” Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe said in a press release. “We are all extremely excited that NASA was able to accommodate this earlier launch date. The world will see this amazing metal world so much sooner.”

Space Systems Loral (SSL) is building the Psyche spacecraft for the mission and had to change things around to accommodate the new trajectory. The solar array system was changed from a four-panel straight row design to a five-panel x-shaped design, which will give the craft the power it needs to move at the faster pace.

Aside from planet creation, the team hopes to learn more information about where Psyche came from and what its surface is like.

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