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NASA probe sets off on 3.5-billion-km journey to explore Psyche asteroid and the solar system’s origins

The mission could confirm scientists' theory that metal-rich Psyche is all that remains of a stillborn planet.

The mission could confirm scientists' theory that metal-rich Psyche is all that remains of a stillborn planet. Photo: NASA

NASA has launched a spacecraft from Florida on its way to Psyche, the largest of the several metal-rich asteroids known in our solar system.

The asteroid is believed by scientists to be the remnant core of an ancient protoplanet, offering clues about Earth’s formation.

The Psyche probe, folded inside the cargo bay of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, blasted off on Friday under partly cloudy skies from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral on a planned journey of 3.5 billion km through space.

The spacecraft, roughly the size of a small van, is due to reach the asteroid in August 2029.

All systems A-OK

The launch marks the latest in a series of recent NASA missions seeking insights about the origins of our planet about 4.5 billion years ago by sending robotic spacecraft to explore asteroids – primordial relics from the dawn of the solar system.

Asteroid Psyche measures roughly 280 km across at its widest point and resides on the outer fringes of the main asteroid belt between the planets Mars and Jupiter.

Mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles confirmed detection of the probe’s first radio signals shortly after it was seen on live video floating free from the rocket.

The JPL team plans to spend the next three to four months conducting checks of the spacecraft’s systems before sending it on its deep space journey, propelled by solar-electric ion thrusters being used for the first time on an interplanetary mission.

After reaching the asteroid, the spacecraft would then orbit it for 26 months, scanning Psyche with instruments built to measure its gravity, magnetic proprieties and composition.

According to the leading hypothesis, the asteroid is the once-molten, long-frozen inner hulk of a baby planet torn apart by collisions with other celestial bodies in the early solar system. It orbits the sun about three times farther than Earth, even at its closest to our planet.

Window on the distant past

The first asteroid of its kind chosen for study at close range by spacecraft, Psyche is believed to consist largely of iron, nickel, gold and other metals.

But the mission has nothing to do with space mining, according to scientists.

Its objective is to gain greater understanding of the formation of Earth and other rocky planets that are built around cores of molten metal. Earth’s molten centre is too deep and too hot to ever be examined directly.

Upon reaching Psyche, the probe is set to circle it in a series of gradually descending orbits, ending up a mere 65 km from the asteroid’s surface, before finishing the mission in November 2031.

The asteroid, discovered in 1852 and named for the goddess of the soul in Greek mythology, is the largest of about nine known asteroids that appear from ground-based radar observations to consist largely of metal, with rocky material mixed in.

-AAP

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