On a mission: NASA spacecraft to visit asteroids, study early solar system
On Wednesday, the U.S. space agency NASA announced two new missions to asteroids. These are large pieces of rock that orbit the sun. The missions are designed to study the early history of the solar system.
The missions have been named Lucy and Psyche. NASA hopes to launch Lucy in 2021 and Psyche in 2023.
The period NASA wants to learn more about was over 4.5 billion years ago. It was a time not long after the birth of the sun.
Lucy and Psyche Missions To Faraway Asteroids
The Lucy mission is named after the skeleton of an early human found in 1974. It will involve sending a spacecraft to study Jupiter's Trojan asteroids. Scientists think these rocks are left over from an earlier time in the history of the solar system.
This is a special opportunity, Harold Levison said. He is a scientist working on the Lucy mission. He said that the Trojan asteroids are made of the same material that formed the outer planets. Studying them will "revolutionize the understanding of our origins," Levison said.
Meanwhile, the Psyche mission will explore a special asteroid called 16 Psyche. It is about three times farther away from the sun than the Earth is.
Most asteroids are rocky or icy. But scientists think 16 Psyche is made mostly of iron and nickel, like the Earth's core.
NASA said that 16 Psyche could be an exposed core of an early planet. Most planets have three layers, including a core, mantle and crust. These are made of different materials. It's possible that 16 Psyche was a planet that shed its rocky outer layers after crashing into something long ago.
Exploring "A New Type of World"
The mission will help scientists learn how planets separated into layers.
"This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world," said Lindy Elkins-Tanton. She is a scientist working on the Psyche mission.
"16 Psyche is the only known object of its kind in the solar system," she said. "This is the only way humans will ever visit a core. We learn about inner space by visiting outer space."
The missions are part of a larger NASA plan, scientist Jim Green said. They will help the agency learn "how the solar system formed and evolved." They may also help NASA learn "what the future may hold."