Becoming a planet is no picnic. The competition is fierce as planetary bodies take shape inside their nursery, a star-circling ring of gas and dust. Birth throes and growing pains include smash-ups, breakups, collisions, vaporizations, and general mayhem. If you’re lucky you might end up – like Earth – with your metallic interior, outer crust, and atmosphere intact.
If you’re not, you might end up like Psyche.
This 140-mile- (226-kilometer) wide chunk of metal and rock belongs to our solar system’s asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and just might be a shadow of its former self. Psyche, to be visited by a NASA spacecraft of the same name as soon as 2026, could be the partial core of a shattered planetesimal – a small world the size of a city or small country that is the first building block of a planet.10 Things You Should Know about the Psyche Mission
Psyche could be exposed core material from a planetesimal. This would make it the remnant of a world that otherwise might have merged with other planetesimals to become another full-fledged planet – until multiple collisions stripped away its outer layers during our system’s early formation.
A First for Humanity
When it examines asteroid Psyche, the Psyche spacecraft will make humanity’s first-ever exploration of a world made largely of metal.
Clues About Earth
Asteroid Psyche, possibly leftover core material from a planetesimal (the first building blocks of planets), could provide clues about how Earth’s core came to be.
Illustration of Asteroid Psyche
Psyche Has Soul
Asteroid Psyche was discovered in 1852, at the time only the 16th asteroid that had been detected. It is named for the Greek goddess of the soul.
Psyche will test a futuristic communications system, called Deep Space Optical Communication. It uses lasers to communicate with Earth, instead of radio waves, encoding data in photons, which are particles of light.
Psyche will use radio waves to measure the asteroid’s gravity. Combined with maps of the asteroid's surface features, or topography, this should yield clues to the asteroid’s interior structure.
Down to Basics
Psyche's gamma ray and neutron spectrometer will get down to the basic elements, identifying levels of iron, nickel, silicon, and oxygen – and helping reveal the asteroid’s formation history and evolution. A magnetometer will add to the story by measuring the asteroid’s magnetic field.
A pair of high-resolution cameras onboard Psyche, called the multi-spectral imager, will help identify the types of materials that make up the asteroid.
Big as a Tennis Court
With its solar panels unfolded, the Psyche spacecraft will be about the size of a singles tennis court.
A 3.5 Year Cruise
After launching in August 2022, the Psyche spacecraft will use ion propulsion (solar-electric powered) to make its 3.5-year cruise to its namesake asteroid, arriving in 2026.