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NASA is going to perform an 'autopsy' on a dead planet

By Elizabeth Rayne
NASA Psyche mission

While we haven’t found any dead aliens (yet), there are dead planets right here in our solar system, and NASA really wants to probe the exposed guts of one.

Psyche is an asteroid that scientists believe could have once been a protoplanet the size of Mars before it got reduced to its iron-nickel core from smashing into too many other objects. Now, NASA’s Psyche mission has entered its final design and fabrication phase, or Phase C, before its 2022 launch that should send a spacecraft past Mars and to the asteroid belt so it can examine the mysterious remains.

"The Psyche team is not only elated that we have the go-ahead for Phase C, more importantly, we are ready," said Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton. "With the transition into this new mission phase, we are one big step closer to uncovering the secrets of Psyche, a giant mysterious metallic asteroid, and that means the world to us."

The thing about this asteroid, named after the mythological nymph that captured Cupid’s heart, is that it is made of metal, unlike most of the hunks of ice and rock whizzing through the asteroid belt. Iron and nickel are the stuff of Earth’s core. If Psyche really is a mashup of those metals, that could give us a rare glimpse into a distant era when Earth and other terrestrial planets were born from the deaths of other protoplanets in superfast collisions.

When NASA sends over the spacecraft that is now in progress, the Psyche team hopes that an in-depth look at this asteroid can reveal not just whether it really is a protoplanet core, but also its age, a closeup of its surface and possible evidence that it might have formed the same way as the core of our planet.

Because Psyche is unlike any world out there that has ever been explored, the science instruments on the robotic mission are designed to give this supposed dead planet something of an autopsy. Its magnetometer will measure what is left of its magnetic field, while its multispectral imager will be able to tell apart the metals and silicates in the asteroid. The stuff Psyche is made of will be studied on a molecular level, thanks to a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer.

Something especially cool about this mission is that it will test Deep Space Optical Communications, a new type of leveled-up laser communications tech.

Now that Phase C is a go, there are three more phases ahead before the Psyche mission takes off. The spacecraft is currently undergoing the final stages of design, with final assembly starting Phase D. Phase E will cover deep-space operations and science after the mission has left Earth.

Meanwhile, we'll be eagerly anticipating the footage from this autopsy.

(via NASA)