Psyche: NASA just took a key step to visiting a fantastic, metal-rich asteroid

Does 16 Psyche really contain $700 quintillion in heavy metals?
Chris Young
The Psyche spacecraft's solar arrays.NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's Psyche mission, which will investigate one of the most metal-rich asteroids ever observed, 16 Psyche, is edging ever nearer to liftoff.

The Psyche spacecraft just had its twin solar arrays installed meaning it is "close to its final configuration ahead of the planned August launch," NASA said in a blog post.

Thanks to the solar power generated from those arrays, the Psyche mission will travel 1.5 billion miles to ascertain whether 16 Psyche asteroid really does contain $700 quintillion worth of heavy metals.

Investigating an ancient space rock

The 173-mile-wide asteroid is viewed as a key target for future space mining missions. The problem is that light (spectroscopy) readings paint a picture of an asteroid abundant in rich metals, while gravitational calculations suggest it has a lower mass than would be expected from a space rock composed mainly of iron and nickel. A team from Purdue and Brown University, for example, recently suggested that 16 Psyche may have an outer coating of metal and a large rock core, which would account for the spectroscopy readings.

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There's only one way to truly find out 16 Psyche's composition, and that comes in the form of NASA's Psyche mission, which is estimated to reach the asteroid by 2026. Once it arrives at the massive space rock, it will spend almost two years making close orbits and taking readings.

Now that the mission's spacecraft has its solar arrays attached, it is one crucial step closer to liftoff. The five-panel arrays measure 75 square meters and, according to NASA, they are the largest ever to be installed at JPL. When the arrays are fully deployed once in space, they will measure roughly the size of a tennis court.

"Seeing the spacecraft fully assembled for the first time is a huge accomplishment; there’s a lot of pride," said Brian Bone, who leads assembly, test, and launch operations for the mission at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Southern California. "This is the true fun part. You're feeling it all come together. You feel the energy change and shift."

A solar array for low-light conditions

In the vicinity of 16 Psyche, at the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, there will be enough sunlight to produce only about 2 kilowatts of energy, roughly the energy used to power a hairdryer. To overcome this challenge, NASA built hyper-efficient, lightweight, radiation-resistant solar panels for the Psyche mission. These were specifically designed to work in low-light conditions.

Psyche: NASA just took a key step to visiting a fantastic, metal-rich asteroid
An artist's impression of NASA's Psyche spacecraft with its fully deployed solar arrays. Source: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Impressively, those low-light solar arrays will be used to power Psyche's scientific instruments, including a magnetometer, imagers, and spectrometers. If all goes to plan, those instruments will finally reveal whether 16 Psyche is worth the efforts of future space mining missions, or whether they should set their sights elsewhere. What's more, by investigating an ancient rock that may have formed during the early formation of the solar system, it will also provide valuable insight into the formation of Earth and all of our surrounding neighbors.

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