NASA asteroid missions to discover secrets of the universe

NASA will embark on two missions it says could unlock secrets to how our solar system was formed.

The Lucy and Psyche missions — both robotic, unmanned endeavors controlled from Earth — will take us back to the time 10 million years after the sun was born.

Lucy will visit the Trojan asteroids of Jupiter when it launches in October 2021. Scientists suspect the asteroids, currently caught in the largest planet's 12-year orbit around the sun, may have existed in the beginnings of the solar system and before Jupiter's orbit.

Lucy's principal investigator Harold F. Levison claims the mission will yield other-worldly insight into our universe.

"Because the Trojans are remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets, they hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system," he explained. "Lucy, like the human fossil for which it is named, will revolutionize the understanding of our origins."

But don't wait up, Lucy's first stop won't come until 2025 when it arrives at a main belt asteroid. It will examine the Trojans from 2027 to 2033.

Psyche's fact-finding mission takes it to an ancient, giant metal asteroid 130 miles in diameter. NASA wants to know whether the asteroid, thought to be made of iron and nickel, could be part of what was an earlier planet perhaps as large as Mars.

Scientists say the asteroid, named 16 Psyche, may have lost its outer core through a series of collisions. The Psyche mission, scientists believe, could shed light on how planets and other masses broke up into cores, mantles and crusts years ago.

Psyche launches in October 2023 and will arrive at the asteroid in 2030.

"This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world — not one of rock or ice, but of metal," said, Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Psyche's principal investigator. "16 Psyche is the only known object of its kind in the solar system, and this is the only way humans will ever visit a core. We learn about inner space by visiting outer space."

Lucy and Psyche are both part of the Discovery Program, formed in 1992 to explore the mysteries of our solar system. The duo beat out three other options and will be added to the more than 100 NASA missions both active and under development.

Follow Sean Rossman on Twitter: @SeanRossman


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