NASA kicked off the new year by making travel plans to visit a bevy of asteroids, including an all-metal world that is believed to be the remnant core of a planet that was destroyed during the solar system's violent early years.
The metal asteroid, known as Psyche, will be visited by a spacecraft of the same name that is targeted for launch in 2023. The asteroid, which is located about three times farther away from the sun than Earth, is about 130 miles in diameter. Unlike other rocky or icy asteroids, Psyche is made entirely of iron-nickel metal, similar to Earth's core.
Scientists suspect Psyche may have started off as a Mars-sized planet that lost its outer rocky layers after being pummeled by other asteroids and mini-planets billions of years ago.
"Humankind has visited rocky worlds and icy worlds and worlds made of gas, but we have never seen a metal world," planetary geologist Lindy Elkins-Tanton, with Arizona State University in Tempe, told reporters on a conference call.
The mission is one of two selected by NASA on Wednesday for funding under its Discovery Program, with costs capped at about $450 million, not including the launches.
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The second mission, called Lucy, will head beyond Psyche's home in the main asteroid belt, located between Mars and Jupiter, to a group of asteroids pinned in orbits around Jupiter. These bodies, known as Trojans, have never been visited by a space probe.
The Lucy mission gets its name from the 3.2 million-year-old female skeletal remains, which were discovered in 1974.
"These small bodies are really the fossils of planet formation and that's why we named Lucy after the human ancestor known as Lucy," lead scientist Hal Levinson, with the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, told reporters.
"One of the really surprising aspects of this population is its diversity. If we look at them through telescopes we see that they are very different from one another in their color, in their spectra, and so we believe that's telling us something about how the solar system formed and evolved," Levinson said.
Lucy is slated to launch in 2021 and visit one main belt asteroid and six Trojans between 2025 and 2033.
Artist's rendering of the Lucy spacecraft (left) flying by the Trojan Eurybates and the Psyche probe (right) visiting the metal world 16 Psyche. Credits: SwRI and SSL/Peter Rubin.
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