NASA Psyche'd to Explore Metal Asteroid

Oct 16, 2023

In Greek mythology, the beautiful mortal Psyche undertook a series of missions to prove to the goddess Aphrodite that she was worthy to win the heart of Cupid, Aphrodite’s son. Now, NASA’s Psyche mission is on a quest to learn more about a different heart: that of a newborn planet.

The unmanned Psyche spacecraft launched Friday aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket. It will travel 2.2 billion miles over the next six years. It will slingshot around Mars to reach its namesake asteroid, 16 Psyche. 16 Psyche floats in an asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars. Once there, the Psyche spacecraft will relay data about the rare celestial body. Hopefully, it'll also shed light on the origins of the mostly-metal, Massachusetts-sized stone.

“We’re launching a mission to an object that humankind has never before studied up close,” Lindy Elkins-Tanton told CNN. She is Psyche’s principal investigator. She stated, “This will be our first time visiting a world that has a metal surface … so that is what is so exciting about this.”

Initial telescope studies suggest that 16 Psyche is made mostly of iron and nickel. Both are found in Earth’s core and in those of other planets. Thus, astronomers believe 16 Psyche might be a chunk blasted off a newly-forming planet in the early days of our solar system. If it is, studying 16 Psyche could offer clues as to how Earth formed. And if it’s something else entirely?

“It’s going to surprise us when we get there,” Elkins-Tanton said. “I think there’s a very good chance that it’s going to be outside of our imaginings, and that is my fondest hope."

Photo courtesy @nasahqphoto on X.

Reflect: If you could explore one planet, asteroid, or other celestial body in our solar system, what would it be and why?

Which of the following features of the asteroid named 16 Psyche is highlighted multiple times in the article? (Common Core RI.5.3; RI.6.3)
a. 16 Psyche is named for a character from Greek mythology.
b. 16 Psyche is located on the asteroid belt between Jupiter and Mars.
c. 16 Psyche is made of mostly metal.
d. A SpaceX Falcon rocket will take 6 years to reach 16 Psyche.
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