NASA announces exotic asteroid missions to study early solar system
The U.S. space agency NASA on Wednesday announced two new missions to asteroids. The unmanned expeditions are 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.
Lucy Mission To Trojan Asteroids
The Lucy mission – named for a famous fossil of an early human 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," said Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA's Science Mission Directorate. "Psyche will study a unique metal asteroid that’s never been visited before."
"This is what Discovery Program missions are all about – boldly going to places we've never been," Zurbuchen stressed.
Psyche Mission To Metal Asteroid
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 but this one is thought to be mostly of iron and nickel, like the Earth's core.
Scientists are considering the possibility that 16 Psyche could be an exposed core of an early planet as large as Mars, NASA said. It's possible that the planet 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.
Scientists Excited About Space Missions
"This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world – not one of rock or ice, but of metal," said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, of Arizona State University in Tempe. 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 strategy of investigating 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, changed over time, and became places where life could develop," Green said. They will also help scientists understand "what the future may hold."