Canadian company MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (TSX:MDA) has been awarded the contract to build NASA’s spacecraft heading to all-metal asteroid 16 Psyche.
NASA has announced a pair of missions to asteroids in the solar system, one of which will head to an extremely rare pure metal asteroid.
First discovered in 1852, the 210 kilometre-wide asteroid named Psyche, which orbits about 450 million kilometres from the sun, is set to be the focus of one of NASA’s two new missions under its budget-friendly Discovery Program. Psyche is thought to be the nickel and iron core of an ancient protoplanet which through violent “hit-and-run” collisions with other objects lost its rocky mantle, leaving just the all-metal core. The uniqueness of Psyche makes it an enticing subject for exploration.
“This is what Discovery Program missions are all about – boldly going to places we’ve never been to enable groundbreaking science,” says Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA’s Science Mission Directorate in Washington.
Set to launch in October of 2023, the Psyche spacecraft will travel for seven years before reaching its target, where it will spend 12 months in orbit. NASA has tapped the Arizona State University school of earth and space exploration to lead the project, which aims at learning more about the building blocks of planet formation from this unique asteroid. “By visiting Psyche, we can literally visit a planetary core the only way that humankind ever can,” says Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the Psyche mission’s lead investigator. “It’s 1,800 miles to the Earth’s core, and the deepest humans have ever managed to drill is seven-and-a-half miles.”
Canadian space, satellite and communications company, MacDonald, Dettwiler and Associates (MDA) has been awarded the contract to build the spacecraft platform for Psyche, a reported $100 million contract. MDA was the supplier of the Canadarm space robotic arm used in NASA’s retired Space Shuttle program and currently provides the robotic system on the International Space Station.
The entire budget for the Psyche mission is projected to be under $450 million (USD), making it a cost-effective approach to doing science in space. But many interested parties will be closely following Psyche for its other potential application: asteroid mining. The asteroid is thought to be composed of roughly 17,000 trillion tonnes of nickel-iron ore, enough to meet humankind’s needs for eons to come.
The other just-announced mission will also be asteroid-focused, this time on six of Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, a set of space objects that are being pulled along by Jupiter in its orbit around the sun. Known as Lucy, the mission’s aim is to learn more about the early days of the solar system by focusing on these ancient relics.
“This is a unique opportunity,” said Harold F. Levison, principal investigator of the Lucy mission from the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “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.”