Within the asteroid belt sitting between Mars and Jupiter lies a bizarre metal asteroid known as 16 Psyche. Believed to be the naked core of an ancient planet, the object is the only one of its kind known to us within our solar system.
This unique opportunity for knowledge proved too good to pass up for NASA, who have announced they are sending a probe to the asteroid as early as 2023. By investigating this vestigial core, they hope to learn more about our own planet’s inner most secrets.
Lindy Elkins-Tanton based at Arizona State University is leading the team:
“16 Psyche is the only known object of its kind in the solar system, and this is the only way humans will ever visit a core. We learn about inner space by visiting outer space.”
We have actually been aware of the asteroid for many years – it was first identified in 1852 by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis, who named it for the Greek mythological figure Psych. – but it is only by visiting the object that we can glean the most detailed and accurate data about its origins and materials, as well as planet formation in a more general sense. For instance, NASA believes the original planet may have existed just 10 million years after the birth of our sun (in other words, when the solar system was still very young) and so it may hold clues as to how planets in the early solar system evolved to become those we know today.
If launched in 2023, the probe, also named Psyche, will endure a 7 year journey to reach the asteroid, after which it will spend 20 months circling the object and recording as much data as possible. Alongside photographic recordings, the probe will also measure the composition of the asteroid and details about its magnetic field.
The Psyche mission is part of a larger endeavour known as the Discovery Program missions, which according to NASA ‘gives scientists the opportunity to dig deep into their imaginations and find innovative ways to unlock the mysteries of the solar system’. This program has existed since 1992 and has already made some groundbreaking discoveries:
- The Stardust mission launched in 1999 was the first mission dedicated to studying a comet and successfully returned to earth with comet dust particles to research.
- The Genesis mission launched in 2001 successfully gathered solar wind (basically pieces of the sun!) which are being continually studied in a clean room at the Johnson Space Center.
- Possible one of NASA’s most famous missions of the past few decades, the New Horizons mission to Pluto, launched in 2006, successfully arrived at Pluto and led to a whole host of new data about the dwarf planet.
- The Kepler mission, launched in 2009, was tasked with seeking out potential life-harbouring planets, and has discovered over 1,284 new exoplanets since it’s inception.
16 Psyche is just the next in a long line of future missions for NASA, but it its findings are anywhere near as impressive as the previous Discovery Program missions, we’ll be in for a real treat. To find out more about the mission, check out NASA’s research page here.