NASA has selected two missions that have the potential to open new windows on one of the earliest eras in the history of our solar system – a time less than 10 million years after the birth of our sun.
The missions, known as Lucy and Psyche, were chosen from five finalists and will proceed to mission formulation, with the goal of launching in 2021 and 2023, respectively.
Lucy will visit a target-rich environment of Jupiter’s mysterious Trojan asteroids, while Psyche will study a unique metal asteroid that’s never been visited before.
Lucy, a robotic spacecraft, is scheduled to launch in October 2021. It’s slated to arrive at its first destination, a main belt asteroid, in 2025. From 2027 to 2033, Lucy will explore six Jupiter Trojan asteroids. These asteroids are trapped by Jupiter’s gravity in two swarms that share the planet’s orbit, one leading and one trailing Jupiter in its 12-year circuit around the sun. The Trojans are thought to be relics of a much earlier era in the history of the solar system, and may have formed far beyond Jupiter’s current orbit.
Lucy will build on the success of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, using newer versions of the RALPH and LORRI science instruments that helped enable the mission’s achievements. Several members of the Lucy mission team also are veterans of the New Horizons mission. Lucy also will build on the success of the OSIRIS-REx mission to asteroid Bennu, with the OTES instrument and several members of the OSIRIS-REx team.
The Psyche mission will explore one of the most intriguing targets in the main asteroid belt – a giant metal asteroid, known as 16 Psyche, about three times farther away from the sun than is the Earth. This asteroid measures about 130 miles (210 kilometers) in diameter and, unlike most other asteroids that are rocky or icy bodies, is thought to be comprised mostly of metallic iron and nickel, similar to Earth’s core.
Scientists wonder whether Psyche could be an exposed core of an early planet that could have been as large as Mars, but which lost its rocky outer layers due to a number of violent collisions billions of years ago.
The mission will help scientists understand how planets and other bodies separated into their layers – including cores, mantles and crusts – early in their histories.
Psyche, also a robotic mission, is targeted to launch in October of 2023, arriving at the asteroid in 2030, following an Earth gravity assist spacecraft maneuver in 2024 and a Mars flyby in 2025.
In addition to selecting the Lucy and Psyche missions for formulation, the agency will extend funding for the Near Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) project for an additional year. The NEOCam space telescope is designed to survey regions of space closest to Earth’s orbit, where potentially hazardous asteroids may be found.