A mission to an asteroid will have to wait a while. It was scheduled to head for space as early as next week. But a series of technical problems has kept it on the ground for at least another year.
The spacecraft is named for its asteroid target: Psyche. The asteroid is in the asteroid belt, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It’s shaped like a potato, with an average diameter of about 140 miles. It could be a fragment of the core of a small planet that was blasted apart in a long-ago collision.
That idea is based on Psyche’s composition — it contains a lot of iron and nickel. In fact, it’s the largest of all the known metal-rich asteroids. Scientists are especially interested in it because it could have formed in the same way as Earth did, and it could provide a peek into a planetary core that we can’t get here at home.
The Psyche spacecraft is about the size of a Smart Car, with solar panels big enough to cover a tennis court. It’ll use ion power to maneuver — electric thrusters that deliver low thrust, but that can fire for weeks or months without stopping.
Psyche will get a gravitational boost from Mars to help it reach the asteroid. It’ll spend almost two years orbiting the heavy space rock, eventually dropping as close as about 50 miles. It’ll take pictures and measure Psyche’s magnetic field and its composition — giving us a detailed look at a body that could tell us a lot about our own planet.
Script by Damond Benningfield