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A NASA mission to send a spacecraft to an asteroid worth so much it could collapse the world's economy is to enter its "final phase" after the plans cleared a massive hurdle.
The asteroid, named 16 Psyche, is 252 km-wide – nearly 17 times bigger than the asteroid that led to the extinction of dinosaurs millions of years ago.
Psyche is made up entirely of nickel and iron, which are the exact same materials at the Earth’s core.
The metal-rich asteroid orbits the Sun in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
This – as well as its sheer size – has led experts to believe the asteroid is actually the remains of a planet.
But the value of just the iron alone if the asteroid was transported back to Earth, would be $10,000 quadrillion (£8,072 quadrillion).
This would be enough to cause the world’s economy – worth $73.7 trillion – to collapse altogether, experts say.
After an intense review of the mission’s progress in building its science instruments and engineering systems, Psyche won clearance to progress into what NASA calls Phase D of its life cycle – the final phase of operations prior to its scheduled launch in August 2022.
Until now, the mission has focused on planning, designing, and building the body of the spacecraft, its solar-electric propulsion system, the three science instruments, electronics, the power subsystem, and the like.
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The successful review of those elements means the mission can now begin delivering components to NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, which manages the mission and will test, assemble, and integrate each piece.
“It’s really the final phase, when all of the puzzle pieces are coming together and we’re getting on the rocket. This is the most intense part of everything that happens on the ground,” said Arizona State University’s Lindy Elkins-Tanton, who as principal investigator for Psyche leads the mission.
Scientists believe that exploring the asteroid Psyche (about 140 miles, or 226 kilometers, wide) could lend valuable insight into how Earth and other planets formed.
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The Psyche spacecraft will use a magnetometer to detect a potential magnetic field; if the asteroid has one, it’s a strong indicator that it once was the core of an early planet.
A multispectral imager will capture images of the surface, as well as gather information about the asteroid’s composition and topography. Spectrometers will analyse the neutrons and gamma rays coming from the surface to reveal the elements that make up the object.
The main structure of the spacecraft, called the Solar Electric Propulsion (SEP) Chassis, was designed and built by Maxar Technologies and is nearly complete.
The Maxar team in Palo Alto, California, is preparing to ship it to JPL’s main clean room in March, when assembly, test, and launch operations begin.
“The project has made tremendous progress, particularly given the world around us and Covid-19 and dealing with the constraints that imposes,” said JPL’s Henry Stone, the Psyche project manager. “We’re in very good shape. We’re on track and have a plan to go forward to make launch.”
“The fact that we can still make this happen and we’re overcoming our challenges feels near-miraculous,” Elkins-Tanton said. “And it’s also an incredible gift to keep us all focused and moving forward in a difficult time. So reaching this milestone has special meaning – not just for this project that we’ve been working on for a decade, but also because of what’s been happening more recently in all of our lives.”
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