(ORDO NEWS) — Later this year, NASA plans to launch a tennis court-sized probe into the asteroid belt, the region between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, where the remnants of the early solar system orbit the sun.
Once in the asteroid belt, the spacecraft will target Psyche, a large, metal-rich asteroid believed to be the ancient core of one of the early planets.
The probe, named after its target asteroid, will spend about two years in orbit and analyze the surface of Psyche for clues about how early planetary bodies evolved.
Ahead of this mission, led by principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton, and MIT planetary scientists have already gotten a glimpse of what the Psyche spacecraft might see once it reaches its destination.
The team presents the most detailed maps of the asteroid’s surface properties to date, based on observations made with a large array of ground-based telescopes in northern Chile.
The maps show extensive metal-rich areas extending across the asteroid’s surface, as well as a large depression that appears to have a different surface texture between the inside and the edge; this difference may reflect a crater filled with finer sand and rimmed with more rocky materials.
In general, the surface of Psyche turned out to be surprisingly diverse in its properties. Its rocky regions may be the remains of an ancient mantle similar in composition to the rocky outer layers of Earth, Mars, and the asteroid Vesta, or the imprints of past space rock impacts.
Finally, the craters containing metallic material support the idea from previous studies that the asteroid may have had early eruptions of metallic lava as its ancient core cooled.
Scientists were able to see Psyche in greater detail, with a resolution of about 32 kilometers per pixel, using the combined power of 66 radio antennas from the Atacama Large Millimeter/Submillimeter Array (ALMA) in northern Chile.
Each ALMA antenna measures millimeter-wave light emitted by an object in a range that is sensitive to temperature and some electrical properties of surface materials.
On June 19, 2019, ALMA focused its entire array on Psyche, which was orbiting in the asteroid belt. The collected data for this period were converted into a map of thermal radiation on the surface of the asteroid. The same data was used to create the latest high-resolution 3D model of Psyche’s shape.
The researchers confirmed that in general the surface of Psyche is rich in metals, but the content of metals and silicates varies across the surface.
This could be another hint that the asteroid may have had a silicate-rich mantle in the early stages of its formation, which has since disappeared.
They also found that as the asteroid rotates, the material at the bottom of a large depression – probably a crater – changes temperature much faster than the material along the rim.
This suggests that the crater floor is covered in “ponds” of fine-grained material, similar to sand on Earth, that heats up rapidly, while the rim of the crater is composed of more rocky, slowly heating materials.
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