The asteroid 16 Psyche is the target of the NASA Discovery Programme's 14th mission. The eponymous robotic mission will be launched in 2023 and will explore a metallic asteroid for the first time in order to gain further knowledge about the formation of the Solar System and especially about the structure and development of planetary bodies. The German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft-und Raumfahrt; DLR) is supporting the NASA mission with the planning of stereo images, the generation of terrain models and the cartographic, topographic and geological analysis of the surface of 16 Psyche.
Metallic asteroid – Building block of the Solar System?
Asteroid 16 Psyche is located at a distance of approximately three times farther from the Sun than Earth, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. It takes the asteroid five years to complete one orbit around the Sun. With a diameter of nearly 250 kilometres, 16 Psyche is one of the largest bodies in the Main Asteroid Belt. It was discovered in 1852 by the Italian astronomer Annibale De Gasparis and named after the wife of the Greek god Eros. Scientists are particularly interested in this planetary body because it appears to consist almost completely of iron and nickel – much like Earth's core. In contrast to rocky planets like Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, however, the asteroid does not have a rocky exterior. Its nickel-iron composition could be an indication that 16 Psyche is perhaps the core of a once-larger body. The investigation of Earth's core (and other planetary cores) is, however, impossible as, at more than 3000 kilometres under Earth's rocky crust, it cannot be reached by scientists. "16 Psyche is the only known body in the Solar System in which a planetary nucleus can be directly examined," says Ralf Jaumann from the To the Institute's website.
The probe is scheduled for launch in 2023, and from its arrival in 2030 will explore the asteroid for 20 months from a gradually closer orbit to answer scientists' questions about its evolutionary history: Is Psyche the remains of a protoplanet in which the rocky mantle separated from the iron core due to violent collisions and ultimately left a naked metal core? Or is it a survivor of an unprecedented creation process? What knowledge will it provide about the formation of rocky planets like Mercury, Venus, Mars and Earth? These and other questions will be addressed by scientists on the Psyche mission, in which the geological and geophysical investigations of the asteroid will be conducted using four instruments. A multi-spectral camera will acquire high-resolution images of the surface. A gamma-ray and neutron spectrometer will determine the asteroid's basic composition. A magnetometer will be used to measure the magnetic field. An X-band radio-telecommunications system will provide data to determine the gravitational field.