A year from now, NASA will launch an electric spacecraft named Psyche to reach the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. The Psyche spacecraft will rely on a solar electric propulsion system to reach its ultimate destination, the asteroid Psyche.

Asteroid Psyche was first discovered in 1952. It orbits the Sun and is located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter at a distance ranging from 235 million to 309 million miles (378 million to 497 million kilometers) from the Sun. It takes five years to complete one orbit.

NASA is building an electric spacecraft to reach the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter
An artist’s concept of asteroid 16 PsycheMaxar/ASU/P.Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech

What makes Psyche interesting is that, unlike most asteroids which are made up of ice or rock, it is largely made up of metal. Scientists have wondered if Psyche is actually a part of the core of an ancient planet whose crust and mantle somehow vanished over a period of time.

The diameter of the asteroid is just a sixteenth of Earth’s Moon, or about the distance between Mumbai and Nashik, or Los Angeles and San Diego.

What piques NASA’s and scientists’ interest in the asteroid Psyche is its possible composition, which is said to be comprised mostly of metallic iron and nickel, similar to Earth’s core.

NASA is building an electric spacecraft to reach the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter
Engineers at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California work to integrate Hall thrusters into the agency's Psyche spacecraftNASA
The Psyche spacecraft is slated to launch in August 2022 and would arrive at the asteroid Psyche in early 2026. The mission is scheduled for 21 months in orbit, wherein the spacecraft will study Psyche’s properties using a multispectral imager, a gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer, a magnetometer, and a radio instrument (for gravity measurement).

Since scientists are unable to reach, see or measure Earth’s core directly, the Psyche mission offers us a unique chance to study and understand the history of how terrestrial planets like Earth were born.

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