NASA has chosen two missions that could potentially reveal the origins of our solar system.
The missions – known as Lucy and Psyche – were chosen from five finalists and will proceed to mission formulation with launches expected in 2021 and 2023, respectively.
Lucy is a robotic spacecraft due to launch in October 2021 and slated to arrive at its first destination in the main belt asteroid in 2025. Between 2027 and 2033, Lucy will explore six Jupiter Trojan asteroids thought to be relics of a much-earlier era in the history of the solar system. These asteroids may have formed far beyond Jupiter’s current orbit.
“This is a unique opportunity,” said Harold Levison, principal investigator of the Lucy mission from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colo. “Because the Trojans are remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets, they hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system. Lucy, like the human fossil for which it is named, will revolutionize the understanding of our origins.”
The Psyche mission will explore a giant metal asteroid called 16 Psyche, about three times farther from the sun than is the Earth. This asteroid measures 130 miles in diameter and is thought to be made mostly of metallic iron and nickel, similar to the Earth’s core. Scientists speculate that 16 Psyche could be the exposed core of an early planet as large as Mars. This planet may have lost its outer layers in violent collisions billions of years ago.
“16 Psyche is the only known object of its kind in the solar system, and this is the only way humans will ever visit a core. We learn about inner space by visiting outer space,” said Psyche principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University.
The Discovery Program missions’ development costs are capped at $450 million and are managed by the Planetary Missions Program Office at Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Ala. The program’s portfolio includes 12 prior selections like MESSENGER to study Mercury, Dawn to study the Vesta and Ceres asteroids, and the InSight Mars lander, scheduled for a May 2018 launch.
Filed Under: Aerospace + defense