Journey to the Center of the Earth may not be so far off.
While nobody is venturing through our own planet’s layer of molten magma anytime soon, NASA’s Discovery mission plans to observe one that has already been exposed: the asteroid Psyche. Now the space agency has confirmed that the mission will take off a year earlier than expected. That’s four years ahead of schedule.
Psyche is unconventional because it is made of metal versus the rock or ice of most asteroids. Meaning it was probably a protoplanet at some point in time. This will also be the first metal world scientists explore when Discovery launches in 2022 (with an estimated 2026 arrival date)—ever. Its orbit between Mars and Jupiter explains the long trip. While Earth’s own core is metallic, getting there would be inconvenient, to say the least. Psyche is a much easier specimen to study. This 155-mile-wide hunk of heavy metal is composed of a nickel-iron alloy that will give deeper insight into the cosmic collisions that planets are born from.
“Psyche offers a unique window into the violent history of collisions and accretion that created terrestrial planets,” says NASA on its site.
To understand the origins of Psyche, which could be a portal into the past of other planets and celestial objects, Discovery is equipped with magnetometers and multispectral imagers, along with a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer.
With all the mission delay announcements that NASA keeps beaming over the internet, this newly expedited schedule comes as something of a surprise. NASA had previously asked the Psyche team if it would be possible to revamp the spacecraft for an earlier launch. The team delivered with a revised, more efficient trajectory that factors out the need for a time-consuming Earth gravity assist and reduces the amount of necessary heat protection by sending the craft further from the sun. Discovery’s trajectory will also have it positioned for a Mars assist a year after it takes off.
The Discovery makeover undertaken by Space Systems Loral (SSL) involved leveling up to a high-powered solar array system with an X-shaped design that will boost its capability and give it a speed advantage over larger craft.
"The biggest advantage is the excellent trajectory, which gets us there about twice as fast and is more cost-effective," said Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton. "We are all extremely excited that NASA was able to accommodate this earlier launch date. The world will see this amazing metal world so much sooner."