The heart of our own planet lies frustratingly out of reach of scientists, who are instead turning their sights to the skies to learn more about what’s located far below Earth’s rocky mantle and crust.
The Psyche project, which will launch an unmanned spacecraft on a protracted trip to reach a metal-rich asteroid that has startling similarities to Earth’s own core, has been predicted for years, and NASA scientists have been preparing for it. But that eagerly anticipated mission is now prepared for launch as early as Thursday following a year-long delay.
The Psyche spacecraft, named for the asteroid to which it is headed, should soon be prepared to launch from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida aboard SpaceX’s triple-core Falcon Heavy rocket due to an ever-shrinking launch window. A six-year, 2.2 billion-mile journey to the Psyche asteroid, which orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter, is in front of the spacecraft.
Here’s what to know about the Psyche mission. Located approximately three times farther from the Sun than Earth, Psyche is named after its 1852 discovery for the Greek goddess of the soul who was born mortal and married Eros, the god of Love. The mysterious metallic object floating in the far reaches of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is one scientists have long believed could harbor secrets of Earth’s own core, as well as those of other terrestrial planets.
As planetary bodies take shape within star-circling rings of gas and dust, they may be smashed, broken up, vaporized or face other mayhem. Few become terrestrial planets like Earth — atmospheres intact with metallic interiors and outer crusts. Psyche — a 140-mile wide chunk of metal and rock that may be part of the interior of a planetary building block called a planetesimal — didn’t turn out that way. NASA scientists theorize that the asteroid could be a partial exposed core composed of nickel-iron, the shattered remnants of an early planet that never got a chance to form.
While rocks on Mars, Venus, and Earth are flush with iron oxides, Psyche’s surface doesn’t seem to feature much of these chemical compounds, suggesting that its history differs from standard stories of planetary formation.
Because scientists are unable to bore a path deep enough to reach Earth’s metallic core, sending a spacecraft billions of miles away was the next best solution. Studying it could help scientists learn about planetary cores and how Earth and other rocky planets formed. NASA began planning its Psyche mission in 2017 to investigate the previously unexplored metallic asteroid of the same name as part of the agency’s Discovery Program formed in 1992.