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What to Know & How to Watch NASA's Launch to the Asteroid Psyche
Everything you need to know about the mission and how to watch the launch.
In Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City (streaming now on Peacock!) a lot of drama gets stirred up over a tiny piece of space rock (and the alien who shows up to claim it) when there are much more valuable space rocks out there. In fact, NASA is preparing for a mission to one of the most valuable space rocks we’ve ever found, an asteroid called Psyche.
NASA’s Psyche Mission and the Asteroid It’s Named After
Psyche is a metal-rich asteroid roughly 280 kilometers (173 miles) across, orbiting in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Scientists are interested in Psyche because it’s relatively big and it’s made of metal, not rock or ice. Given its characteristics, Psyche is believed to be the exposed core of a failed planet leftover from the formation of our solar system.
Four and a half billion years ago, give or take, the solar system would have been a dense cloud of gas and dust. Over time, bits of matter bumped into one another and stuck. As those clumping early objects grew, so did their gravitational influence. Like a cosmic snowball running downhill, some of those objects snatched onto enough material to become planets or moons. Meanwhile, their internal compositions were in flux, as more material was added and the internal pull of gravity increased, denser materials sunk to the center. In the surviving rocky planets, like Earth, those materials became metal-rich cores.
Psyche, however, didn’t cross the finish line to etch its name in the planetary leaderboard. Somewhere along the way, something went wrong, the planet came apart, and its dense metal core was left to wander the empty expanse of the asteroid belt. That’s the hypothesis, anyway. The Psyche mission is headed there to find out for sure.
After launch, with the solar array deployed, the entire craft will be about the size of a tennis court with the probe itself, roughly the size of a commuter van, parked in the middle. Psyche is equipped with a number of scientific instruments including a multispectral imager, gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, and magnetometer. Psyche will also test a new kind of laser communications system to up the bandwidth between Earth and deep space.
The estimated value of the asteroid Psyche, if all of its nickel, iron, and gold were recovered, exceeds the total value of the global economy but its scientific value might be greater, and easier to realize. Seeing into Earth’s own core isn’t really possible, what with all the planet in the way, so investigating Psyche might be like a planetary autopsy, letting us peer inside the guts of a world and see what’s going on.
When Does NASA's Psyche Launch and How to Watch
Launch was originally planned for the first week of October but got pushed due to a minor thruster issue. Now, NASA is targeting 10:16 a.m. Eastern Time on October 12 for the start of Psyche’s interplanetary journey. Additional launch slots are available through October 25, 2023.
If all goes according to plan, the spacecraft will lift off from Launch Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center, aboard a Falcon Heavy rocket. It will spend the next several years traveling through space before rendezvous with Psyche in July 2029. Once in the neighborhood, it will let the asteroid’s gravity grab hold and fall into orbit around Psyche. The spacecraft will spend the next couple of years taking pictures, mapping the surface, and studying Psyche’s composition.
The launch will be livestreamed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) who led large portions of the probe’s development. You can also watch it live via NASA TV on NASA’s website or YouTube channel. You can also come back here to watch the livestream embedded above.
In the meantime, catch Wes Anderson’s Asteroid City, streaming now on Peacock!