Psyche mission aims to help scientists understand Earth’s core

Artist's rendition of Psyche asteroid with spacecraft in backgroundThree times farther from the sun than Earth, a massive asteroid made of metal floats in space between Mars and Jupiter. Its name is Psyche, and it could be the core of an early planet that survived violent collisions when the solar system was forming. Psyche was the sixteenth asteroid ever discovered, in 1852, but only recently has a spacecraft mission been initiated by Arizona State University and NASA to study this asteroid in more depth. Unlike most other known asteroids, which are primarily rocky, Psyche appears to be made almost entirely of nickel-iron metal — much like Earth’s own core. According to ASU’s Psyche website, “The asteroid Psyche may be able to tell us how Earth’s core and the cores of the other terrestrial (rocky) planets came to be.” Scientists can’t investigate Earth’s core directly, so studying an asteroid with a similar makeup may be the next best thing. ASU leads the Psyche mission, and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory is responsible for its management, operations and spacecraft navigation. The spacecraft is slated to launch in 2022, and then it will spend nearly four years cruising through space, using the gravitational field of Mars to increase in speed, until it reaches Psyche in 2026. Upon arrival, the spacecraft will orbit Psyche for 21 months, mapping and studying the asteroid’s properties. ASU’s Lindy Elkins-Tanton carries a lot of responsibility on her shoulders as the Principal Investigator of the Psyche mission. Elkins-Tanton, a Foundation Professor and Director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration, is responsible for the overall success of the mission. But of course, she doesn’t do everything alone. The mission involves dozens of ASU staff, faculty and students along with personnel at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory and Space Systems Loral (the company in charge of building the spacecraft’s solar-electric propulsion chassis). Until the mission’s launch in four years, there’s a lot to do. Elkins-Tanton said she participates in about 15 standing meetings per week that help the team brainstorm, communicate and stay up to date. “Experiencing the incredible ocean of knowledge and talent that is required to design, build, and fly a space mission keeps me jumping out of bed every morning,” Elkins-Tanton said. “I also really love connecting the mission to the world. Space exploration is meant to inspire everyone everywhere to be more bold in their own lives.” There are many active programs that encourage student involvement with the mission, including Psyche Inspired, a program for undergraduate students to create artistic works to share with the public. Other students are developing capstone projects related to Psyche. The interdisciplinary connections are endless. As a Distinguished Sustainability Scientist at the Julie Ann Wrigley Global Institute of Sustainability, Elkins-Tanton can easily see how this astronomical mission relates to a sustainable life on Earth. “We hope, and believe, that looking out into the unknown helps humans think with more perspective about our Earth,” Elkins-Tanton said. “The more we understand what a rare and wonderful planet we live on, and the more we learn about teams, societies, technology, motivation and interdisciplinary work, the more able and motivated we will be to create a sustainable life here.” Top photo: Artist's rendition of the Psyche asteroid with spacecraft in orbit. Photo credit SSL/ASU/Peter Rubin