Artist’s impression of the mission to 16 Psyche (giant letters not actually in space) | Image: NASA
NASA announced its next two Discovery missions yesterday, Lucy and Psyche, so let’s sit down and see what they’re all about.
There are three classes of mission over at NASA, and yesterday, NASA picked two missions from the five finalists as its next Discovery missions. Discovery missions are the smaller, more focused missions, meant to answer very specific questions (not to be confused with Flagship and New Frontiers missions) for example Discovery 12, the Mars InSight mission now set to launch in 2018; Discovery 9, the Dawn mission to Ceres; and Discovery 10, the Kepler mission that found all those exoplanets. The five runners-up were:
DAVINCI: The Deep Atmosphere Venus Investigation of Noble gases, Chemistry, and Imaging mission was a plan to drop a probe into Venus’s atmosphere, and take detailed readings of it over the course of a 63-minute descent, after which (one expects) the probe would die a horrible death in the 90 atmospheres of pressure at roughly 870°f/465°C where it rains sulfuric acid.
VERITAS: The Venus Emissivity, Radio Science, InSAR, Topography, and Spectroscopy mission would have orbited Earth’s neighbour and taken high-res scans of its surface through the clouds, giving us surface deformation and composition maps.
NEOCam: the Near Earth Object Camera would have discovered an order of magnitude more (you guessed it) near-Earth objects and started a detailed characterization of them.
The two that were picked yesterday were called Lucy and Psyche. Both are asteroid missions trying to learn more about the very early solar system (~10 million years after the sun ignited).
Lucy will launch in 2021, and, after visiting a main belt asteroid in 2025, it’ll move on to its primary mission objective, studying six “trojans” — asteroids caught in Jupiter’s orbit in swarms ahead of and behind the largest planet in the solar system. They’re a bit of a mystery right now, but over the course of 2027-2033, Lucy should be able to tell us their compositions and maybe even where they formed (as well as how they got to where they are now).
Psyche will launch in 2023 and head (after an Earth gravity assist in 2024 and a Mars flyby in 2025) to the asteroid belt to meet up with something called 16 Psyche. 16 Psyche is an odd duck. It’s not very big — about 150 miles wide (240km) at the widest, though it’s pretty oblong — it’s also pretty massive. It’s about 1% of the mass in the whole asteroid belt, and its density (estimated between 3.3 and 6.7 g/cm³) is much higher than that of Ceres (2.16 g/cm³). That’s because while Ceres seems to be a giant snowball, 16 Psyche is made of metal. In fact, the researchers behind the mission think it’s the core of a protoplanet that got wasted in the early years of the solar system — probably by another protoplanet and possibly leading to the creation of the asteroid belt. So among other things, studying it might tell us about our own planet’s core, which is a challenge to study as present since it’s under hundreds of miles of rock.
I have to admit, I’m a little saddened that we’re not going back to Venus. It’s been a while, and I’ve got a thing for Venus (mostly because I want us to live in cloud cities on Venus while we slowly terraform its surface, starting with a cloud of solar reflectors at its L1 point to cool it down and going from there). But these two are going to be supremely interesting missions and the data they return will be priceless. Lucy and Psyche will be Discovery missions 13 and 14.
You can learn more about them in the video below, though I’m sure there’ll be much more to say in the days and years to come.
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Richard Ford Burley is a human, writer, and doctoral candidate at Boston College, as well as Deputy Managing Editor at Ledger, the first academic journal devoted to Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies. In his spare time he writes about science, skepticism, feminism, and futurism here at This Week In Tomorrow.