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SCIENCE
 

NASA announces two missions to study early solar system

An artist’s conception of the Lucy spacecraft flying by the Trojan Eurybates, which is one of the six diverse and scientifically important Trojans to be studied. Trojans are fossils of planet formation and so will supply important clues to the earliest history of the solar system.
An artist’s conception of the Lucy spacecraft flying by the Trojan Eurybates, which is one of the six diverse and scientifically important Trojans to be studied. Trojans are fossils of planet formation and so will supply important clues to the earliest history of the solar system. Credits: SwRI and SSL/Peter Rubin

The U.S. space agency NASA on Wednesday announced two unmanned missions to asteroids designed to study one of the earliest eras in the history of the solar system.

They have been dubbed Lucy and Psyche, and NASA hopes to launch them in 2021 and 2023, respectively.

The period NASA wants to learn more about is an era less than 10 million years after the birth of the sun.

The Lucy mission – named for a famous, critical hominin fossil set found in Ethiopia in 1974 – will involve sending a robotic spacecraft to study Jupiter's so-called Trojan asteroids. These are thought to be relics of a much earlier era in the history of the solar system.

"This is a unique opportunity," said Harold Levison, principal investigator of the Lucy mission.

"Because the Trojans are remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets, they hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system. Lucy, like the human fossil for which it is named, will revolutionize the understanding of our origins."

"Lucy will visit a target-rich environment of Jupiter's mysterious Trojan asteroids, while Psyche will study a unique metal asteroid that’s never been visited before," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate.

"This is what Discovery Program missions are all about – boldly going to places we've never been to enable groundbreaking science," he stressed.

Meanwhile, the Psyche mission aims to explore a huge, one-of-a-kind metal asteroid, called 16 Psyche, that is about three times farther away from the sun than the Earth is.

Most asteroids are rocky or icy, but this one is thought to be mostly of iron and nickel, like the Earth's core.

NASA said scientists are considering the possibility that 16 Psyche could be an exposed core of an early planet as large as Mars, but which shed its rocky outer layers due to violent collisions billions of years ago.

The mission will help scientists learn how planets and other bodies separated into layers like cores, mantles and crusts early in their histories.

"This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world – not one of rock or ice, but of metal," said Psyche principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton, of Arizona State University in Tempe.

"16 Psyche is the only known object of its kind in the solar system, and this is the only way humans will ever visit a core. We learn about inner space by visiting outer space," Elkins-Tanton said.

"These are true missions of discovery that integrate into NASA's larger strategy of investigating how the solar system formed and evolved," said NASA Planetary Science Director Jim Green.

"These additional pieces of the puzzle will help us understand how the sun and its family of planets formed, changed over time, and became places where life could develop and be sustained – and what the future may hold."

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1
Anchor 1: What the Text Says

Which of the following aspects of the article is left uncertain?

A

what distinguishes the 16 Psyche asteroid from the Trojan asteroids

B

how studying the Trojan asteroids will revolutionize the understanding of our origins

C

why NASA is targeting the Trojan asteroids and the 16 Psyche asteroid for exploration

D

how various NASA scientists feel about studying asteroids

2
Anchor 1: What the Text Says

Read the paragraph from the article.

NASA said scientists are considering the possibility that Psyche could be an exposed core of an early planet as large as Mars, but which shed its rocky outer layers due to violent collisions billions of years ago.

Which inference is BEST supported by this paragraph?

A

NASA scientists believe that most planets in our solar system once had rocky outer layers.

B

NASA scientists believe that most asteroids used to be large planets.

C

NASA scientists have much to learn about the creation of metal asteroids.

D

NASA scientists have multiple theories about how metal asteroids were created.

3
Anchor 2: Central Idea

Which option accurately reflects the relationship between two of the article's central ideas?

A

One of the goals of NASA is to investigate how the solar system formed and evolved; launching missions to study the Trojan asteroids and the 16 Psyche asteroid should bring NASA one step closer to achieving its goal.

B

NASA announced plans to send two manned missions to the Trojan asteroids and the 16 Psyche asteroid; the asteroids to be studied differ in key characteristics.

C

NASA scientists want to learn how planets and other bodies separated into layers early in their histories; studying the 16 Psyche asteroid will give scientists the unique opportunity to study an object that has a core, mantle and crust.

D

One of the goals of NASA is to study one of the earliest eras of the history of the solar system; the Lucy and Psyche missions will further this goal by sending spacecraft to study asteroids that are closer to the sun than Earth is.

4
Anchor 2: Central Idea

Which statement would be MOST important to include in an objective summary of the article?

A

NASA's plan to study the 16 Psyche asteroid is an ambitious one because the asteroid has never been visited before.

B

Scientists involved with the NASA missions to explore the Trojan asteroids and the 16 Psyche asteroid have high expectations of what they might learn about the solar system.

C

The Lucy and Psyche missions to study asteroids will help NASA understand how the sun and planets formed and evolved to be able to support life.

D

NASA's plan for the Lucy mission developed from a robust desire to discover more about the primordial material of Jupiter.

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