NASA debuts the spacecraft bound for the $700-quintillion Psyche 16 asteroid

Although the bottom line has been cast into doubt.
Chris Young

NASA's Psyche spacecraft was shown off to the world as the space agency prepares for its summer launch.

NASA showcased its Psyche spacecraft for civilians — protective smock-wearing members of the media — to see before engineers make the final adjustments and the machine is sent to Florida in anticipation of liftoff in August.

The spacecraft will launch from Cape Canaveral, Florida before making a roughly three-year trip to Psyche 16, an asteroid that could be a target for future space mining missions.

Will NASA's spacecraft uncover precious space metals?

One early estimate suggested the roughly 173-mile-wide Psyche 16 contains approximately $700 quintillion in heavy metals, though this initial analysis has been cast in doubt by follow-up studies. The initial estimate was made using spectroscopy readings, but gravitational calculations suggest the asteroid has a lower mass than would be expected from a space rock composed mainly of iron and nickel — leading some to believe it only has a thin outer coating composed of heavy metals.

The only recourse left is to actually travel to the asteroid, which is exactly what NASA will do with its Psyche mission. Now, NASA is showcasing its spacecraft to the world thanks to the press event it held on Monday, April 11, during which the asteroid-bound machine was on full display.

NASA debuts the spacecraft bound for the $700-quintillion Psyche 16 asteroid
Reporters were invited to observe NASA's Psyche spacecraft before its August launch. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

"Welcoming reporters into the cleanroom gives the public a glimpse of the years of hard work that have gone into this mission," explained Brian Bone, Psyche's assembly, test, and launch operations manager at JPL. "Thanks to the Psyche team's determination and skill, we're in the final stretch of readying the spacecraft to head out to our launch site in Florida."

All press attendees were required to clean their equipment with isopropyl alcohol and wear protective smocks and hair coverings before going into the High Bay 2 cleanroom in the Jet Propulsion Laboratory's Spacecraft Assembly Facility.

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Psyche is ready for launch

NASA's Psyche spacecraft will perform a flyby of Mars in May 2023, which will give it a gravity assist, powering it on towards Psyche 16. In early 2026, the spacecraft will reach and start to orbit the large asteroid.

NASA debuts the spacecraft bound for the $700-quintillion Psyche 16 asteroid
An artist's impression of NASA's Psyche spacecraft. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin

NASA entered the assembly, test, and launch operations phase in March last year, and last month the space agency announced it had installed the spacecraft's twin solar arrays, meaning it was "close to its final configuration ahead of the planned August launch." The launch period for NASA's Psyche mission will open on August 1.

Not only will it aim to ascertain whether Psyche 16 really contains the immense wealth of early estimates, it will also investigate its composition to potentially help the scientific community gain a better understanding of early planet development — it is believed the asteroid may consist mainly of planetesimal metal, one of the building blocks of planets including Earth, Mars, Mercury, and Venus.

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