Psyche spreads its wings: NASA puts finishing touches on spacecraft that will visit a


The launch of an exciting mission that will confirm if an asteroid near Mars is worth an unimaginable amount of money is now just two months away.

NASA’s Psyche spacecraft has had its two jumbo solar arrays attached as engineers put the finishing touches on it ahead of its targeted October 5 lift-off date.

The orbiter is due to explore an asteroid called 16 Psyche which scientists think may be packed full of precious metals with a value in excess of $10,000 quadrillion (£8,072 quadrillion).

Others dispute this and say it is just hard rock, but NASA should be able to tell either way when its Psyche spacecraft gets to the asteroid in July 2029. 

Engineers in California are getting the orbiter ready to journey 2.5 billion miles (4 billion kilometres) to 16 Psyche, which sits in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Stretching out: NASA's Psyche spacecraft has had its two jumbo solar arrays attached as engineers put the finishing touches on it ahead of its targeted October 5 lift-off date

Stretching out: NASA’s Psyche spacecraft has had its two jumbo solar arrays attached as engineers put the finishing touches on it ahead of its targeted October 5 lift-off date

Gold mine? The orbiter is due to explore an asteroid called 16 Psyche (depicted) which experts think may be packed full of precious metals with a value in excess of $10,000 quadrillion

Gold mine? The orbiter is due to explore an asteroid called 16 Psyche (depicted) which experts think may be packed full of precious metals with a value in excess of $10,000 quadrillion

HOW MUCH IS PSYCHE WORTH?

If 16 Psyche is in fact loaded with precious metals, it could be worth an extraordinary amount of money, according to Dr Linda Elkins-Tanton, a space scientist at MIT. 

She has calculated that the iron in 16 Psyche alone would be worth $10,000 quadrillion (£8,072 quadrillion). 

Assuming the market for asteroid materials is on Earth, this could cause the value of precious metals to plummet, completely devaluing all holdings including those of governments, and all companies involved in mining, distributing and trading such commodities. 

Ultimately, it could lead to the collapse of the entire economy.  

Speaking to Global News Canada, Dr Elkins-Tanton said: ‘Even if we could grab a big metal piece and drag it back here … what would you do?

‘Could you kind of sit on it and hide it and control the global resource – kind of like diamonds are controlled corporately – and protect your market?

‘What if you decided you were going to bring it back and you were just going to solve the metal resource problems of humankind for all time? This is wild speculation obviously.’

After passing a deployment test, Psyche’s twin solar array wings were re-stowed and will remain tucked away on the sides of the orbiter until the spacecraft leaves Earth. 

At 800 square feet (75 square metres), the five-panel, cross-shaped solar arrays are the largest ever deployed at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in California. 

With the arrays unfurled in flight, the spacecraft will be about the size of a tennis court. 

Although they will produce more than 20 kilowatts of power when the spacecraft is near Earth, the solar arrays are primarily designed to work in the low light of deep space. 

The asteroid Psyche is so far from the sun that even these massive arrays will generate just over 2 kilowatts of power at that distance, which is only a little more power than a hair dryer uses.

Psyche is due to piggy-back into space on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket which is scheduled to lift off from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida no earlier than 10:38 ET (15:38 BST) on October 5.  

NASA hopes that as well as establishing how metal-rich the object is, scientists will also be able to learn more about planetary cores and how planets form.  

The US space agency recently completed a test campaign of the probe’s flight software and installed it on the spacecraft, clearing the hurdle that kept Psyche from making its original 2022 launch date.

‘The team and I are now counting down the days to launch,’ Psyche’s project manager Henry Stone said last month.

‘Our focus has shifted to safely completing the final mechanical closeout of the spacecraft and preparing the team for operations. 

‘The team is conducting numerous training activities to ensure that we are prepared and ready. 

‘It’s a very busy time, but everyone is very excited and looking forward to the launch.’

Once it has escaped Earth’s gravity, the spacecraft will use solar electric propulsion to complete its six-year journey to the Psyche asteroid of the same name.

Scientists think the space rock, which measures about 173 miles (279 kilometres) at its widest point, may be part of a core of a planetesimal — the building block of an early planet. 

It could also provide a unique opportunity to study how planets like our own Earth formed.

Hard at work: Engineers are getting the orbiter ready to journey 2.5 billion miles (4 billion kilometres) to 16 Psyche, which sits in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter

Hard at work: Engineers are getting the orbiter ready to journey 2.5 billion miles (4 billion kilometres) to 16 Psyche, which sits in the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter

Countdown is on: Psyche is due to piggy-back into space on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket which is scheduled to lift off from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on October 5

Countdown is on: Psyche is due to piggy-back into space on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket which is scheduled to lift off from Pad 39A at Kennedy Space Center in Florida on October 5

Scientists believe that rocky planets have dense metal cores at the centre of the magma beneath their surfaces, but because these lie so far beneath the mantle and crust of such worlds, they’re difficult to measure and study directly.

Once NASA’s orbiter reaches 16 Psyche it will spend at least 26 months orbiting the asteroid.

While there, the spacecraft will take countless pictures and gather data that will tell scientists more about its history and what it is made of.  

They hope the information will include the asteroid’s topography, its gravitational properties, and the way different elements are distributed throughout the object.  

If 16 Psyche is in fact loaded with precious metals, it could be worth a huge amount of money, according to Dr Linda Elkins-Tanton, a space scientist at MIT. 

She has calculated that the iron in 16 Psyche alone would be worth $10,000 quadrillion (£8,072 quadrillion). 

Assuming the market for asteroid materials is on Earth, this could cause the value of precious metals to plummet, completely devaluing all holdings including those of governments, and all companies involved in mining, distributing and trading such commodities.  

Tests: NASA recently completed a test campaign of the flight software and installed it on the spacecraft, clearing the hurdle that kept Psyche from making its original 2022 launch date

Tests: NASA recently completed a test campaign of the flight software and installed it on the spacecraft, clearing the hurdle that kept Psyche from making its original 2022 launch date

What it will look like: Once NASA's orbiter reaches 16 Psyche it will spend at least 26 months orbiting the asteroid (pictured in an artist's impression) to gather pictures and data

What it will look like: Once NASA’s orbiter reaches 16 Psyche it will spend at least 26 months orbiting the asteroid (pictured in an artist’s impression) to gather pictures and data

Ultimately, it could lead to the collapse of the entire economy. 

Speaking to Global News Canada, Dr Elkins-Tanton said: ‘Even if we could grab a big metal piece and drag it back here … what would you do?

‘Could you kind of sit on it and hide it and control the global resource – kind of like diamonds are controlled corporately – and protect your market?

‘What if you decided you were going to bring it back and you were just going to solve the metal resource problems of humankind for all time? This is wild speculation obviously.’

The Psyche spacecraft has been described by engineers as being ‘slightly bigger than a Smart Car and about as tall as a regulation basketball hoop’, while if you include the solar panels that will power its movement, it is about as large as a tennis court. 

The mission has been in the phase known as assembly, test, and launch operations since March 2021. 

Luis Dominguez, the systems and electrical lead for assembly, test, and launch operations, said of the preparations: ‘We are moving forward and we’re confident that when we’re on the pad, we’ll be ready to hit the button. 

‘For all of us, we’ll be excited to launch this bird.’

THE METAL WORLD OF  16 PSYCHE

16 Psyche is located in the large asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, and may have started as a planet, before it was partially destroyed during the formation of the solar system.

Now, it is believed to be a 173 mile (280 km) wide chunk of metal, made up of iron, nickel and a number of other rare metals, including gold, platinum and copper. 

As such, it offers a unique look into the violent collisions that created Earth and the terrestrial planets. 

The mission team seeks to determine whether Psyche is the core of an early planet, how old it is, whether it formed in similar ways to Earth’s core, and what its surface is like. 

The spacecraft’s instrument payload will include magnetometers, multispectral imagers, and a gamma ray and neutron spectrometer.

Why are asteroids worth so much?

It may be 230 million miles (370 million km) away from Earth, but this asteroid could be worth a small fortune.

16 Psyche is one of the most mysterious objects in our solar system, and scientists will soon be getting a close-up view thanks to NASA’s upcoming mission.

If the asteroid could be transported back to Earth, the iron alone that experts think it could contain would be worth $10,000 quadrillion (£8,072 quadrillion).

Its value would be large enough to destroy commodity prices and cause the world’s economy – worth $73.7 trillion (£59.5 trillion) – to collapse.



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