Psyche mission is a long journey that could change life on Earth

(ORDO NEWS) — (16) Psyche is one of the most unusual celestial bodies in the Asteroid Belt. It can give people not only an understanding of the origin of the planets, but also incredible resources in terms of their volumes. True, you will have to wait: the mission to explore the asteroid is only at the very beginning of a long and difficult journey.

The nucleus as the beginning of everything

The first half of 2021 was marked by a series of major events related to space exploration. On February 18, the Perseverance rover , the largest of all planetary rovers in the history of mankind, landed on the Red Planet . Once again, China made itself known by delivering the Tianwen-1 research apparatus to Mars: it entered orbit on February 10.

Together with the constant references to Mars by Elon Musk and various science popularizers, it would seem that this is the number one goal in terms of studying our planetary system. This approach is not unfounded, given the distance to Mars and its relative “similarity” to the Earth. But we must not forget that there are no less interesting objects for research, in addition to the Red Planet and the satellite of our planet.

In February, NASA again reminded everyone of this by directing the eyes of earthlings to the distant and mysterious asteroid (16) Psyche. After a thorough review of the project’s progress in building scientific instruments and engineering systems, Psyche was cleared to move into what the US space agency has called Phase D of its life cycle.

In fact, we are talking about the final stage of the operation before the planned launch in August 2022. Looking ahead a little, it’s worth saying that this will not be an ordinary event, even by NASA standards: about 10 quintillion dollars, or 10,000,000,000,000,000,000, are at stake. To make it clearer: this is approximately 10 thousand times the volume of the world economy in 2019

Psyche mission is a long journey that could change life on Earth 2

But you can exhale: this is not the price of the mission, but the estimated cost of the “golden” asteroid, the composition of which is at least very impressive. “We’ve seen meteorites that are mostly metal, but Psyche is unique in that it’s all iron and nickel,” said Tracey Becker, a planetary scientist at the Southwestern Research Institute in San Antonio.

According to experts, the reserves of precious metals in the rocks of Psyche may be about 110 billion tons. But the matter is not only (or rather, not so much) in the nominal price of the object, especially since the earthlings simply do not yet have physical opportunities to extract minerals there.

Psyche is primarily a research value. This is one of those objects that, as they say, can answer “immediately and to everything.” Well, or, in any case, to questions about the origin of the planets and the formation of life on them.

Where is Psyche located and why exactly can she tell about the processes that have taken place and are taking place in our system to such an extent? The asteroid is located in a region known as the “asteroid belt”. It is located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter.

In total, the mass of the main belt is about four percent of the mass of the Moon, with more than half of this accounted for by such relatively large objects as Vesta, Ceres, Pallas and Hygiea. Ceres is the so-called dwarf planet. The rest of the bodies mentioned above are asteroids.

Psyche mission is a long journey that could change life on Earth 1

The concept of the asteroid belt was introduced into use in the early 1850s, and specifically Psyche was discovered in 1852 by the Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis. The object got its name in honor of the personification of the soul in the mythology of the ancient Greeks.

Against the background of thousands of other objects of the Asteroid Belt, it stands out at least by its class: Psyche belongs to the so-called spectral class M, which is relatively poorly studied. Such objects have a moderately high albedo (a term from photometry that shows how much of the light rays the surface reflects).

Actually, the hero of our article is the largest asteroid of this class known. It is one of the ten most massive asteroids in the Main Belt: it accounts for approximately one percent of the mass of all its bodies, the mass of the object is estimated at 2.72E19 kilograms.

Initially, the infrared orbital observatory IRAS (InfraRed Astronomical Satellite) determined the maximum size of Psyche at 253 kilometers, and more detailed observations carried out in the early 2000s identified it as an ellipsoid with dimensions of 214 × 181 × 145 kilometers. Still later, scientists estimated the size of the object at 277 × 238 × 168 kilometers. The average surface temperature of the asteroid is 160 kelvins (minus 113 °C). The distance to the Sun is 2.834 astronomical units.

How did Psyche originate and why does she stand out from other objects in the belt? We will not get answers to all these questions soon: for now, people have only a blurry image taken in 2018 by the Very Large Telescope, or VLT complex.

And there is also evidence that suggests that signs of the presence of water or hydroxyl are noticeable on the surface of the asteroid. Most likely, Psyche is nothing but the metal core of a protoplanet or its fragment. It could collapse at the very beginning of the formation of our system, colliding with a larger object. Probably, after the collision, the silicate rocks of the shells that surrounded the metal core broke off and scattered.

There are craters on the surface of Psyche, and it is possible that they are of volcanic origin.

Computer modeling has made it possible to identify craters on the surface of Psyche, but their nature is unclear to scientists. One version suggests that they arose as a result of impact, that is, collisions with other cosmic bodies. There is another hypothesis: according to it, the craters of Psyche are of volcanic origin.

Psyche mission is a long journey that could change life on Earth 3

It cannot be said that over the past years our knowledge of Psyche has not increased. Not too long ago, Wendy K. Caldwell of Los Alamos National Laboratory and other scientists ran 2D and 3D simulations of the largest asteroid impact crater at 67 ± 15 kilometers in diameter.

The simulation made it possible to confirm the previously obtained estimates of the chemical composition of the celestial body. In one simulation, the object consisted of monel, and its porosity ratio was 30-50 percent. At the same time, scientists recognize that Psyche is probably a heterogeneous porous body with a more complex structure than one might think.

In general, the interest of the scientific world goes far beyond determining the structure of an asteroid. We can say that, having reached Psyche, scientists will be able to see the “prototype” of the Earth’s core, which probably also consists of nickel and iron. And in the future, researchers will be able to answer more general questions about the formation of the planets of our (and not only) system.

Psyche mission is a long journey that could change life on Earth 4

To simplify as much as possible, within the framework of the mission, scientists are most interested in the following questions:

  • Formation of the iron core of the planets on the example of Psyche;
  • The structure of relatively little-studied class M asteroids;
  • Age of asteroid surface regions;
  • The conditions for its formation;
  • Characteristics of the topography of Psyche.

Along the way, experts want to understand a number of other issues. For example, if (16) Psyche was stripped of her mantle, when and how did this happen? And if the asteroid was once molten, did it solidify on the inside or on the outside? Other issues concern, in particular, the cooling of the magnetic field of a celestial body and the main elements that exist in the metallic iron of the core.

Road to the goal

The ambitious goals pose difficult challenges for NASA engineers. The journey will be long: the spacecraft should enter orbit on January 31, 2026. That is, the flight to the goal will take almost three and a half years. The estimated time for studying the asteroid is 21 months.

Psyche mission is a long journey that could change life on Earth 5

The project budget is $450 million, which is certainly a huge amount, but at the same time, you need to understand that there are more expensive programs. You don’t have to look far for an example: the price of the new James Webb Space Telescope has long exceeded ten billion dollars. And the cost of the entire ISS program exceeds 150 billion (the new Gateway lunar orbital station is likely to catch up and even surpass the progenitor).

One of the most amazing space missions in history is the flight of the European automatic station Rosetta to comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. The first soft landing of the lander on the surface of the comet took place on November 12, 2014. The main probe completed its mission a few years later, on September 30, 2016, crashing on the surface of 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko.

Let’s move on to the flight plan. Psyche is powered by SpaceX’s super-heavy Falcon Heavy. This is the most powerful rocket of all that now exists. The carrier, which made its first launch on February 6, 2018, confirmed its reliability, although in all the years it performed only three launches, all of which were successful.

By 2022 (when Psyche should be launched), the Americans will have an even more powerful rocket – the Space Launch System. However, today the issue with the choice of carrier has already been resolved and there is no direct need to change it.

Psyche mission is a long journey that could change life on Earth 6

Psyche will launch from Launch Complex 39A, located on the grounds of the Kennedy Space Center. According to the flight plan, the spacecraft must rotate in decreasing modes. During the first, the station will enter orbit A at a height of 700 kilometers: this will determine the magnetic field and carry out preliminary mapping.

After that, Psyche will descend to orbit B (290 kilometers), which will allow more detailed studies of these same issues. The next stage is an orbit with a height of 170 kilometers: at this time, the spacecraft will analyze the gravity and magnetic field of the asteroid.

Finally, the final stage is the D orbit with a height of more than 80 kilometers. Due to the maximum approach to Psyche, the station will analyze the chemical composition of the surface of the asteroid.

Together with Psyche, the Janus program, the study of double asteroids, will also go into space.

Together with Psyche, the Falcon Heavy launch vehicle will launch an additional payload into orbit. We are talking about the Janus program, designed to explore double asteroids. The secondary load previously also included EscaPADE to study the atmosphere of Mars, but in 2020 its launch was postponed due to an unsuitable flight path.

Psyche mission is a long journey that could change life on Earth 7

What is a station? Built on the SSL 1300 platform, the device will be quite large: its weight will be 2608 kilograms. Electricity should be generated by double-sided X-shaped solar panels with five panels on each side. The device will receive the SPT-140 engine on the Hall effect (a kind of electrostatic rocket engine), running on xenon.

The engine is nominally rated for an operating power of 4.5 kilowatts. The concept was developed in the Russian Fakel Design Bureau, but later the Americans significantly improved it. The United States conducted the first tests back in 2002, as part of the program for the introduction of rocket propulsion in the interests of the Air Force.

Psyche mission is a long journey that could change life on Earth 8

The Psyche station will have a new Deep Space Optical Communications (DSOC) laser space communications system designed to improve communication performance by 10 to 100 times over current RF technology without increasing mass, volume or power. The project will be managed by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, a NASA research center located near the cities of Pasadena and La Cañada Flintridge.

The payload of the spacecraft includes several tools:

  • Multispectral camera;
  • Gamma and neutron spectrometer;
  • Magnetometer;
  • X-band Gravity Science Investigation equipment.

A multi-spectral camera will provide high-resolution images: different filters are used to distinguish between metallic and silicate components. Thanks to the gamma and neutron spectrometer, scientists will be able to analyze by displaying the elemental composition (16) of Psyche.

The magnetometer will help to study the magnetic field of the object: the detection of traces of residual magnetization can be called one of the main goals of the mission. In turn, X-band Gravity Science Investigation will provide X-ray radio communications to measure the gravitational field of Psyche and determine the internal structure.

Illusion of wealth

Let’s return to where we started, namely, to the practical side (if, of course, it is appropriate to use such a word here). Scientific discoveries are important, but now there is more and more talk about the “commercialization” of space. The famous American popularizer of science, Neil deGrasse Tyson, said several years ago that the first trillionaire in history will make his capital precisely on space resources.

As we already mentioned, Psyche in this case is the most likely candidate to change the economy of the planet. “The extraction of resources from asteroids will have a revolutionary effect on the scale of the global economy. As the industry gains momentum, we will see tons of cargo from space coming to Earth and the world will begin to transition to a post-scarcity model for many now rare metals,” said Mitch Hunter-Scallion, founder of the Asteroid Mining Corporation, earlier.

Psyche mission is a long journey that could change life on Earth 9 1

Of course, not everything is so rosy: we have already spoken about technical problems in passing. “The use of extraterrestrial resources is economically justified only when they are used directly in space. The costs associated with the extraction and delivery of a raw resource, whether rare earth or precious metals, from outer space to Earth make such an enterprise economically unprofitable.

Another issue is the creation of high value-added goods directly in space: from large structures to factories that produce goods that can only be created in microgravity, such as bioprinting spare human organs. The use of extraterrestrial resources is economically viable only outside the Earth, so the risks associated with the prices of rare earth elements seem extremely far-fetched,”

The assessment of the well-known Russian popularizer of science and a specialist in the rocket and space sphere Vitaly Yegorov is noteworthy: “… If we have large-scale needs, then such space resources will show their profitability. It will depend on the cost of launch and the price of equipment. Do not forget about the environmental component: today the same data centers are beginning to have a serious impact on the climate, they can be taken out into space and run on solar energy.”

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The possible extraction of resources on asteroids will entail new questions of a political or, as it is now fashionable to say, geopolitical plan. You can simplify the question as much as possible: how will the leading countries “divide” space and its resources?

Regardless of the technological capabilities of their extraction, this issue will be resolved on Earth and will directly depend on the alignment on the world stage. So far, the collective West and a rising China look like the main possible trailblazers. Probably, in a few decades the situation will not change much, although the emergence of new players in the arena cannot be ruled out.


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