NASA Announces Two New Asteroid Missions

Southwest Research Institute
Southwest Research Institute / Southwest Research Institute

The poet E.E. Cummings wrote, “—listen: there’s a hell / of a good universe next door; let’s go.” And go we shall: NASA’s Discovery Program announced this week that two robotic spacecraft named Psyche and Lucy will be setting out for nearby asteroids within the next decade.

For all our exploration over the last half-century, we still have much to learn about our own solar system. The Discovery Program aims to help fill in those gaps.

“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,” NASA’s Thomas Zurbuchen said in a statement. “This is what Discovery Program missions are all about—boldly going to places we’ve never been to enable groundbreaking science.”

Lucy is scheduled to launch in 2021 and should arrive at her first stop, an asteroid in Jupiter’s main belt, four years later. The craft will then study six of the ancient Trojan asteroids, which may have formed a mere 10 million years after the Sun.

Harold Levison of the Southwest Research Institute is chief investigator on the Lucy mission. “Because the Trojans are remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets,” he explained in a statement, “they hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system. Lucy, like the human fossil for which it is named, will revolutionize the understanding of our origins.”

The Psyche mission, directed by scientists at Arizona State University, will lift off in 2023. It will reach the metal asteroid, called 16 Psyche, between Mars and Jupiter by 2030, then orbit and observe it for another 20 months. The asteroid is made almost entirely out of nickel-iron metal similar to those at the core of rocky planets like Earth.

NASA / ASU SESE mission to the Psyche asteroid from ASU Now on Vimeo.

“The knowledge this mission will create has the potential to affect our thinking about planetary science for generations to come,” said ASU president Michael Crow.