NASA announced two missions to explore asteroids for the Discovery Program

An artist’s rendering of the metal-based asteroid, Psyche. / Photo Credit Arizona State University


NASA announced two missions to explore asteroids for the Discovery Program

NASA announced this month that they would be sending spacecraft on two separate missions to explore asteroids in the 2020s as part of the Discovery Program. First, a spacecraft called Lucy will make a fly by of six separate asteroids. The asteroids are currently caught in the orbit of Jupiter and they’re part of a group called the Trojans which researchers say “span the diversity of the Trojan population.” The Trojans will give investigators incite into the process by which the solar system was formed.

Principal investigator Hal Levison is a planetary scientist specializing in planetary dynamics at the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado. “Owing to their unique location near Jupiter, and the critical role they play in revealing and constraining models of the formation and evolution of the Solar System, Trojans have been a high priority for space missions for over a decade,” said Levison and his team in a mission summary for the 47th Lunar and Planetary Science conference last year.

For the second mission, a spacecraft named Psyche will head out past Mars to an asteroid of the same name. Psyche is currently planned to launch in 2023 and arrive in 2031, where it will remain for nearly two years. The asteroid is  unique, says Arizona State University School of Earth and Space Exploration, because it appears to be composed entirely of metal, rather than of rock or ice.

“Deep within the terrestrial planets, including Earth, scientists infer the presence of metallic cores, but these lie unreachably far below the planets’ rocky mantles and crusts. Because we cannot see or measure Earth’s core directly, 16 Psyche offers a unique window into the violent history of collisions and accretion that created the terrestrial planets.”

With the new administration taking over last week, some are saying NASA’s funding or focus might change. “The next president is inheriting a space program that has this nascent ambition to go to Mars, but doesn’t have hardware actually flying yet,” said Casey Dreier, director of space policy at the Planetary Society, in an interview with shortly before the presidential election in November. “There’s a lot of opportunity for the next administration to say, ‘Should we continue these [programs]? What will the direction be? Do we want to commit to supporting these programs as is? Do we change them? Do we cancel them?”

In regard to the James Webb space telescope, scheduled to be launched in 2018, a NASA administrator said they are confident about the telescope but also noted it is impossible to guarantee any project surviving from one administration to the next.

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