NASA has major plans for asteroids. Could Psyche’s delay change them?

NASA has major plans for asteroids. Could Psyche’s delay change them?

The age of the asteroid has come. Asteroid science is quickly becoming one of humanity’s chief priorities in regard to space exploration, what with the influx of upcoming research endeavors, such as NASA’s ambitious Lucy spacecraft, which is currently on a 12-year voyage to Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, and the European Space Agency’s upcoming Hera mission, which will travel back to the asteroid Dimorphous to survey the scene of the first cosmic bump. To date, global space agencies have had about 15 missions tasked with investigating asteroids, with a few others lined up in the future.

In comparison, the universe’s vast number of both wonderful and terrifying worlds often hogs the limelight of space research. What makes these wandering rocky objects worthy of scientific investigation?

According to Tom Statler ,, a program scientist at NASA’s planetary science division, many aspects of asteroids are still unknown to us. “With asteroids, we are just starting to learn how diverse they really are, and understanding that diversity and how it tells the story of our solar system is an important goal,” Statler told Popular Science in an email.

One of the most anticipated of NASA’s upcoming ventures is the Psyche mission, a craft that will fly 280 million miles away to the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter to investigate whether a large metal-rich rocky body, thought to be an ancient core of an early planet, formed under the same or similar conditions to Earth’s core. Psyche’s properties could provide new insight into the formation of terrestrial planets like Earth and how the solar system survived its chaotic beginnings.

[Related: In its visit to Psyche, NASA hopes to glimpse the center of the Earth]

The agency planned to launch the craft earlier this year, but the mission missed its launch window due to the late delivery of the spacecraft’s flight software and equipment–technology that plays a vital part in the craft’s navigation.

Since NASA had no time to complete preliminary testing on the system ahead of launch, the mission was pushed back until October 2023, at the earliest. To that end, NASA scientists’ have been reworking a new flight profile for Psyche because the delayed launch window also pushes back when the spacecraft would reach its destination, which had been set for 2026. Similar to its original flight plan, the spacecraft will still receive a gravity assist from Mars, a technique that uses a planet’s gravity to accelerate a spacecraft towards its goal, before finally arriving at the asteroid in August 2029.

Though the delay is a setback, scientists are more concerned with getting the mission right than keeping to a strict schedule–after all, most science missions experience similar stops and starts during the planning and testing stages. However, NASA does plan on sharing findings and recommendations from an independent review board for the Psyche mission on Friday, November 4 during an online community townhall. Still, Psyche’s delay may cut in on other future research plans NASA has in store, namely putting a pin in Janus, one of the agency’s lesser-known asteroid-related science missions.

Janus is a dual-spacecraft mission of twin “SmallSats”–a class of nanosatellites–which will explore two binary asteroids, systems of two asteroids that orbit a common center of mass. Scientists hope to understand the formation of these objects by taking visible and infrared photos. Janus was originally scheduled to launch on the SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket that Psyche used to launch a secondary satellite. However, the mission will have to be rescheduled exactly the same.

Once released from the main spacecraft, Janus’ two satellite crafts would have gotten a gravity assist from Earth in August 2025, before heading off and reaching their respective flyby destinations in 2026. Although it’s not clear if Janus will just ride along with Psyche next year, a NASA statement confirms that the agency “continues evaluating options for the Janus missions.”

[Related: NASA is pumped about its asteroid-smacking accuracy]

While Janus’ future remains uncertain, investment continues to flow from a variety of research fields to keep asteroid sciences on the forefront of the space industry. Erik Asphaug, a planetary science professor at the University of Arizona and a co-investigator on the Psyche science team, says that studying asteroids also has both an economic and a practical value. NASA is still proud of the DART mission’s success, in which a spacecraft was deliberately crashed into an asteroid in order to prove that humans can alter the cosmic environment.

“DART was an enormous success, it deflected our target several times faster that we expected,” Asphaug said. “It’s transformed an idea into something more technologically ready for use in hazards.” He adds that moving asteroids at our will would be an extremely beneficial tool for setting up future bases and other potential lunar operations. Asphaug believes that astronauts could benefit from resource-rich asteroids in the future instead of relying upon and draining Earth’s resources.

” I see the devastation caused by mining on Earth and I think it is very short-sighted,” says he. “So I’m looking to stimulate the space industry around asteroids in order that we can get a lot more of the mining and manufacturing done on Earth and do it out there .”

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