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SYFY WIRE psyche

NASA one step closer to exploring $10,000 quadrillion Psyche asteroid

By Adam Pockross
Psyche spacecraft

No psyche job here, NASA is one step closer to mining a far-off, metal-rich distant asteroid that could be worth more than our entire global economy.

OK, technically the previously announced Psyche NASA mission is just talking about learning more about Earth’s formation by exploring the metal-rock asteroid known as “16 Psyche,” but if you’re exploring a rock that could potentially be worth upwards of $10,000 quadrillion (per Forbes), it’s hard not to dream up bigger, sci-fi-leaning mining plans. Regardless of intent, though, NASA just passed a big hurdle on the way to its planned 2022 launch to the 140 miles/226 kilometers-wide asteroid.

According to yesterday’s NASA/JPL announcement, the Psyche mission just passed “with flying colors” its critical design review, a key stage that examines the digital blueprints and engineering models of all the project systems, “including the three science instruments and all of the spacecraft engineering subsystems, from telecommunications, propulsion, and power to avionics and the flight computer.”

Now the mission is moving from the planning and designing stage to the high-gear manufacturing of the spacecraft hardware. Destination: 16 Psyche, one of “the most intriguing targets” in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

What makes Psyche so intriguing is that unlike most rocky or icy asteroids, Psyche is thought to be more Earth-like at its core, consisting largely of metallic iron and nickel, along with some gold (eureka!). It might just be a protoplanet that “lost its outer layers.”

The team hopes that by examining Psyche, they can glean greater knowledge of how Earth and other planets formed. As such, the spacecraft will be fitted with a magnetometer that measures the asteroid’s magnetic field; a multispectral imager to snap pics of the surface and obtain composition and topography data; and spectrometers that “will analyze the neutrons and gamma rays coming from the surface to reveal the elements that make up the asteroid itself.”

Socially distanced building is now underway, with assembly and testing of the full spacecraft beginning in February 2021, and a JPL main clean room delivery deadline for every instrument in April 2021. If all continues to go according to plan, NASA’s Psyche spacecraft is slated launch on top of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket in August of 2022. Its search for gold will take it past Mars in 2023, and begin orbiting 16 Psyche in January 2026.