TITUSVILLE — Off a tree-covered side road next to businesses selling boats and fishing gear, a fenced-in building houses a $700 million satellite nearly ready for launch. Its mission: to study the mineral-rich asteroid Psyche, which scientists believe could reflect Earth’s inner core and other planets in the solar system.
The probe, also named Psyche, is awaiting a trip in October to the launch pad at the Kennedy Space Center. But after missing out on a launch in 2022, NASA stopped him at the Astrotec space operations facility across the river, where he sat in the center of the stark white clean room.
With its solar panels installed this month, teams are finally preparing to fuel it to send it on its 2.5 billion-mile journey to the sun-orbiting asteroid between Mars and Jupiter.
The launch aboard the SpaceX Falcon Heavy from KSC’s Launch Complex 39-A is scheduled for October 5 with a window extending to October 23. It is not scheduled to reach Psyche, which could be anywhere from 235 million to 309 million miles away. From Earth until August 2029, and only then will we begin to discover what distinguishes the distant asteroid.
Psyche could hold answers about how life thrives on Earth, says Psyche principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who is also a professor in Arizona State University’s College of Earth and Space Exploration.
“One of the main properties of our Earth is our metallic core, which gives us our magnetic field, which protects our atmosphere and all the other great things a magnetic field does for us, including the aurora borealis and the beautiful night sky.” He said. “It has long been a dream of humans to go to our Earth’s mineral core. I mean, ask Jules Verne.”
Reaching the center of our planet is technologically beyond human capacity, but the mission to Psyche opens the door to understanding how planets like Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars formed.
“If you think of the asteroid belt, they are really the fragments that remain after our rocky planets were created. It is the material that was stranded, and was never incorporated into the planet that grew into what we have now,” she said. “So, if you think of Earth As a ready-made cake, all ingredients have been liquefied, melted, whisked together and then formed with the metallic core and then left with the rocky exterior. Well, what are the ingredients?”
It is a rare destination, she said, and is one of only nine known asteroids that are either made of metal or have a metallic surface out of more than a million asteroids discovered so far. The data showed that it contains a core of iron and nickel and has an average diameter of 140 miles, or roughly the drive from Daytona Beach to Tampa on Interstate 4.
“We’ve visited rocky bodies and rocky asteroids. We’ve visited icy asteroids. We’ve looked at comets. And the last feature, and the last type of object we’ve never visited as a species in our solar system, is metal.
The asteroid was first discovered on March 17, 1852, by the Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis, named after the Greek goddess of the soul who in mythology gave birth to a human, but married the Greek god of love Eros, also known as Cupid.
“This is the initial exploration, a new type of thing that humans have not seen before,” she said. “The biggest thrill of the whole mission for me is that we will be visiting an unknown object.”
However, the path to launch was not easy. The mission has been in the works for 12 years, and the proposals finally received approval from NASA in 2017 as the 14th Exploration Program effort. The program includes missions such as the Mars Pathfinder, the Kepler space telescope, the Lunar Prospector, and the launch of the Lucy probe into Space Coast in 2021 on its way to study asteroids orbiting the sun in front of and behind Jupiter.
Psyche was supposed to launch in 2022, but public issues with management at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory led to a highly public delay along with an independent review of where the project went wrong. Delaying the launch by more than a year greatly doubled the mission’s life due to Earth’s relative position in the solar system where Psyche orbits. So instead of launching in 2022 with an arrival four years later in 2026, the delay meant continuing for an additional two years.
Maxar Technologies, which has nearly 100 similar satellites in orbit closer to Earth, helped build the satellite, including a plan to use solar arrays to power electric propulsion based on approximately 2,200 pounds of xenon gas that will leave a bright blue glow during release of ions. Almost non-stop between launch and arrival at the asteroid.
Once there, it will have a 26-month mission to explore the asteroid, so teams are looking at the two-decade period between concept and science results.
The probe includes cameras, a magnetometer and a gamma-ray spectrometer to study the asteroid.
“That was a great science process to determine what we were going to measure,” she said. “We need to be able to see the corpse, and that’s what the cameras are for. Then we want to measure the magnetic field. What we hope is that Psyche recorded the magnetic field from its early beginning. And then I kept a history of that magnetic field. It won’t be active today, But he probably recorded it, so magnetometers.
“Then we need to figure out what Psyche is made of and what it’s made of, and then our neutron and gamma-ray spectrometer…and then we’ll go into the gravitational field using radio communications.”
NASA is also making a trip to test laser-based near-infrared optical communication back to Earth for the first two years of the probe’s journey before it reaches Mars to perform a gravity-assisted swing on its way to the asteroid belt. NASA hopes to demonstrate the technology that will be essential for future missions to Mars.
Psyche is so far away, Elkins-Tanton says, that no images have been taken of what she believes to be a potato-shaped orb based on shape models from data collected from Earth, the Hubble Space Telescope and the James Webb Space Telescope.
She is excited about the probe’s eventual arrival, noting that plans are to publish images within 30 minutes of being sent back to Earth.
“We’re all going to find out at the same time,” she said. “We’re going to let the whole world simultaneously look at the same things we’re looking at because that’s the point of spaceflight. It inspires us all to look beyond our destiny, to see our place in the universe.