NASA Marshall-managed mission to explore metal asteroid

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HUNTSVILLE, Ala. - A NASA Marshall Space Flight Center-managed mission would allow man to robotically explore the asteroid Psyche, and discover more about our own planet.

Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the Psyche mission's principal investigator at Arizona State University, can't wait for the October 2023 launch.

"I think I'm still only at about 70% realizing this is real!" she joked. "Having the patience to wait to get there-- that's a pretty big challenge!"

She's excited because of the possibilities of big discoveries about the mystery that is Psyche. There is no other body in our solar system like it.

"Instead of having rock on the outside, it's made of iron-nickel metal which we think is the same material as the deep core inside of our earth," she said. "And that's unreachable. We are never ever going to the earth's core... Psyche is the only core that humankind can ever visit. So we are excited to learn what a metal core looks like."

While some artist renderings may depict what the asteroid is really like, only this mission can allow scientists to be sure.

[vimeo 194399729 w=640 h=360]

(Psyche: Journey to a Metal World from School of Earth & Space on Vimeo.)

"I think the thing I can't get out of my mind, that I've been thinking about for years, is what the metal surface will look like. We really don't have any idea. We can't see it from Earth," she said.

Psyche is an asteroid orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter. It was discovered in 1852, but the hope is when the specially-designed spacecraft involved in Psyche gets there in 2030 its secrets will finally be revealed.

Scientists believe Psyche may have originally been an early planet, but through time its rocky exterior was knocked off and stripped through collisions with other space material. The hope is scientists may also learn more about how planets are formed by exploring this unique place in the solar system.

The spacecraft involved in the mission needs gravity from Earth and Mars to assist it in getting to Psyche. On board will be the latest technology, including a gamma ray and neutron spectrometers to map Psyche's elemental composition, a multispectral imager and other cameras, and an x-band radio telecommunications system to measure Psyche's gravity field.

This mission is part of the Discovery Program, a series of low-cost missions to new places never before explored by man. The Psyche spacecraft will spend 20 months in orbit around the asteroid to study things like its magnetic fields, topography, and elemental composition.

The Psyche mission is managed at NASA Marshall.

"You're not going to get a mission out the other end, if you don't have an organization that works," said Elkins-Tanton. "That's what Huntsville is going to help us to do."

And she hopes the mission helps you to do some things, too.

"Be bolder. Be an explorer. Do something new!" she advised.

Scientists estimate that the metal Psyche is made of would be worth $10 quintillion, "Which is the same as 100,000 times the GDP of the whole earth," explained Elkins-Tanton. But she assured WHNT News 19 the mission is based around the scientific value.

Although, what they learn may be crucial for future lucrative space endeavors.

"Sometime in humankind's future, we are going to be in the asteroid belt mining asteroids," she predicted. "This will be our first time to visit a metal one and get some sense of what it's like."