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Psyche is 1st time ASU will lead a deep-space NASA mission.
Mission goals: Understanding planet building blocks, explore new type of world.
SESE director Lindy Elkins-Tanton is Psyche's principal investigator.
January 4, 2017

Metal asteroid Psyche to offer unique look into violent collisions that created Earth, terrestrial planets

Arizona State University’s Psyche Mission, a journey to a metal asteroid, has been selected for flight, marking the first time the school will lead a deep-space NASA mission and the first time scientists will be able to see what is believed to be a planetary core.  

The mission’s spacecraft is expected to launch in 2023, arriving at the asteroid in 2030, where it will spend 20 months in orbit, mapping it and studying its properties. 

It will be part of NASA’s Discovery Program, a series of lower-cost, highly focused robotic space missions that are exploring the solar system. The Psyche project is capped at $450 million.

“This mission, visiting the asteroid Psyche, will be the first time humans will ever be able to see a planetary core,” said principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton, director of ASU’s School of Earth and Space Exploration (SESE). “Having the Psyche Mission selected for NASA’s Discovery Program will help us gain insights into the metal interior of all rocky planets in our solar system, including Earth.”  

Psyche, an asteroid orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter, is made almost entirely of nickel-iron metal. As such, it offers a unique look into the violent collisions that created Earth and the other terrestrial planets. 

The scientific goals of the Psyche mission are to understand the building blocks of planet formation and explore firsthand a wholly new and unexplored type of world. The mission team seeks to determine whether Psyche is a protoplanetary core, how old it is, whether it formed in similar ways to the Earth’s core, and what its surface is like.

“The knowledge this mission will create has the potential to affect our thinking about planetary science for generations to come,” ASU President Michael M. Crow said. “We are in a new era of exploration of our solar system with new public-private sector partnerships helping unlock new worlds of discovery, and ASU will be at the forefront of that research.”  

Psyche — a window into planetary cores

Every world explored so far by humans (except gas giant planets such as Jupiter or Saturn) has a surface of ice or rock or a mixture of the two, but their cores are thought to be metallic. These cores, however, lie far below rocky mantles and crusts and are considered unreachable in our lifetimes. 

Psyche, an asteroid that appears to be the exposed nickel-iron core of a protoplanet, one of the building blocks of the sun’s planetary system, may provide a window into those cores. The asteroid is most likely a survivor of violent space collisions, common when the solar system was forming. 

Psyche follows an orbit in the outer part of the main asteroid belt, at an average distance from the sun of about 280 million miles, or three times farther from the sun than Earth. It is roughly the size of Massachusetts (about 130 miles in diameter) and dense (7,000 kg/m³).  

“Being selected to lead this ambitious mission to the all-metal asteroid Psyche is a major milestone that reflects ASU’s outstanding research capacity,” said Sethuraman Panchanathan, executive vice president and chief research and innovation officer at ASU. “It speaks to our innovative spirit and our world-class scientific expertise in space exploration.”

Mission instrument payload

The spacecraft's instrument payload will include magnetometers, multispectral imagers, a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, and a radio-science experiment.

The multispectral imager, which will be led by an ASU science team, will provide high-resolution images using filters to discriminate between Psyche's metallic and silicate constituents. It consists of a pair of identical cameras designed to acquire geologic, compositional and topographic data.

The gamma ray and neutron spectrometer will detect, measure and map Psyche's elemental composition. The instrument is mounted on a 7-foot (2-meter) boom to distance the sensors from background radiation created by energetic particles interacting with the spacecraft and to provide an unobstructed field of view. The science team for this instrument is based at the Applied Physics Laboratory at Johns Hopkins University.

The magnetometer, which is led by scientists at MIT and UCLA, is designed to detect and measure the remnant magnetic field of the asteroid. It’s composed of two identical high-sensitivity magnetic field sensors located at the middle and outer end of the boom.

The Psyche spacecraft will also use an X-band radio telecommunications system, led by scientists at MIT and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This instrument will measure Psyche's gravity field and, when combined with topography derived from onboard imagery, will provide information on the interior structure of the asteroid.

The Psyche mission team

In addition to Elkins-Tanton, ASU SESE scientists on the Psyche mission team include Jim Bell, deputy principal investigator and co-investigator, co-investigator Erik Asphaug, and co-investigator David Williams.

NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory managed by Caltech is the managing organization and will build the spacecraft with industry partner Space Systems Loral (SSL). JPL’s contribution to the Psyche mission team includes over 75 people, led by project manager Henry Stone, project scientist Carol Polanskey, project systems engineer David Oh and deputy project manager Bob Mase. SSL contribution to the Psyche mission team includes over 50 people led by SEP Chassis deputy program manager Peter Lord and SEP Chassis program manager Steve Scott. 

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The Psyche mission team at Space System Loral in Palo Alto, California. Photo courtesy of SSL

Other co-investigators are David Bercovici (Yale University), Bruce Bills (JPL), Richard Binzel (Massachusetts Institute of Technology), William Bottke (Southwest Research Institute — SwRI), Ralf Jaumann (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft — und Raumfahrt), Insoo Jun (JPL), David Lawrence (Johns Hopkins University/Applied Physics Laboratory — APL), Simon Marchi (SwRI), Timothy McCoy (Smithsonian Institution), Ryan Park (JPL), Patrick Peplowski (APL), Thomas Prettyman, (Planetary Science Institute), Carol Raymond (JPL), Chris Russell (UCLA), Benjamin Weiss (MIT), Dan Wenkert (JPL), Mark Wieczorek (Institut de Physique du Globe de Paris), and Maria Zuber (MIT).

 

Top photo: Artist rendition of the surface of the asteroid Psyche. Image by Peter Rubin/ASU

Karin Valentine

Media Relations & Marketing manager , School of Earth and Space Exploration

480-965-9345

NASA approves mission that includes ASU-designed, -built thermal emission spectrometer

Voyage will explore asteroids that scientists hope will detail history of solar system


January 4, 2017

NASA has approved a mission to explore asteroids that scientists — including Arizona State University researchers behind a key component — hope will reveal details about the earliest history of the solar system.    

The Lucy mission will carry an ASU-designed and -developed thermal emission spectrometer, which will measure surface temperatures on each asteroid the spacecraft visits, said Philip Christensen of the university’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. The Thermal Emission Spectrometer for the Lucy mission will be a close copy of the OSIRIS-REx Thermal Emission Spectrometer, seen here under construction in the cleanroom on the Tempe campus. Its task in the Lucy mission will be to measure surface temperatures of primitive asteroids as a way of determining their physical properties. Photo by Philip Christensen/ASU Download Full Image

"I'm really excited about this instrument, the third to be built here at SESE," said Christensen, thermal emission spectrometer designer and principal investigator.

The device continues a growing tradition of hands-on engineering for exploration that has become hallmark of the school, said Christensen, Regents' Professor of geological sciences.

The announcement Wednesday came as NASA also selected for development an ASU-led mission to a metallic asteroid.

Both projects were approved through NASA's Discovery Program, a series of cost-capped exploratory missions into the solar system.

The Lucy mission was named for the iconic fossil skeleton, since it will investigate a particular collection of primitive asteroids that scientists hope may uncover fossils of planetary formation.

Its flight plan calls for a 2021 launch. Among the potential targets for an extended mission is asteroid 52246 Donaldjohanson, named for the discoverer of the Lucy fossil and director of ASU's Institute of Human Origins in the School of Human Evolution and Social Change.

 

"With each new mission, we're expanding the types of solar system objects we're studying here at ASU."

— Philip Christensen, ASU Regents' Professor of geological sciences

Originating at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, the mission is under the direction of principal investigator Harold Levison of the Southwest Research Institute.

The target objects for the Lucy mission are asteroids that have never before been studied at close range. These minor planets circle the sun at same distance as Jupiter, roughly five times farther out than Earth, and in the same 12-year orbit as Jupiter. Through a quirk of orbital dynamics, they remain caught in two swarms, one leading and one trailing Jupiter as it orbits the sun.

The first of these asteroids was discovered in 1906 and named for the Greek warrior Achilles from Homer's epic poem "The Iliad."

As more asteroids were discovered in similar orbits, astronomers started naming them after Homeric Greek and Trojan warriors. Those with Greek names orbit ahead of Jupiter, the Trojan-named ones orbit behind. Collectively, however, both groups are called Trojans, and there are now nearly 6,200 known asteroids in Trojan orbits with Jupiter.

The mission should arrive among the Trojans in 2027 and visit six asteroids by 2033.

Because Jupiter's Trojan asteroids orbit far from the sun, they all have very cold surfaces. The role in the mission for TES, Christensen said, is to measure temperatures with great precision all over each asteroid that the Lucy spacecraft visits. 

"By mapping how temperatures vary by the local time of day," Christensen explained, "we can map the surface properties of these previously unknown objects."

That will help planetary scientists decipher their histories and how they have changed since the solar system's early days.

"With each new mission," Christensen said, "we're expanding the types of solar system objects we're studying here are ASU."

Robert Burnham

Science writer, School of Earth and Space Exploration

480-458-8207