Blast off: NASA plans two unmanned missions to study early solar system
On Wednesday, the U.S. space agency NASA announced two new missions to asteroids. These are large chunks of rock that orbit the sun, but are too small to be called planets. The unmanned missions are designed to study one of the earliest eras in the history of the solar system.
They have been named Lucy and Psyche, and NASA hopes to launch them in 2021 and 2023, respectively.
Asteroids Formed Millions Of Years Ago
The period NASA wants to learn more about is an era less than 10 million years after the birth of the sun. Many asteroids were formed during this time.
The Lucy mission is named for a famous fossil of an early human found in Ethiopia in 1974. It 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.
"The Trojans are remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets," Levison said. "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."
One-Of-A-Kind Metal Asteroid To Be Studied
Meanwhile the Psyche mission aims to explore a huge, one-of-a-kind metal asteroid, called 16 Psyche. It is about three times farther away from the sun than the Earth is.
Most asteroids are rocky or icy. 16 Psyche, however, is thought to be made mostly of iron and nickel, like the Earth's core.
Scientists think 16 Psyche could be an exposed core of an early planet, NASA said. It's possible that the planet shed its rocky outer layers after crashing into something billions of years ago.
The mission will help scientists learn how planets and other bodies separated into layers. Most planets have three layers – a core, mantle and crust – which are made of different materials.
"Opportunity To Explore A New Type Of World"
"This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world – not one of rock or ice, but of metal," said Lindy Elkins-Tanton. She serves as principal investigator on the Psyche mission.
"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.
The missions are part of NASA's larger plan to learn "how the solar system formed and evolved," said Jim Green. He serves as the agency's Planetary Science Director.
"These additional pieces of the puzzle will help us understand how the sun and its family of planets formed ... and became places where life could develop," Green said. They will also help scientists understand "what the future may hold."