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Artist's concept of the Psyche spacecraft, which will conduct a direct exploration of an asteroid thought to be a stripped planetary core. Image credit: SSL/ASU/P. Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech

NASA's newest mission will explore a one-of-a-kind giant metal asteroid in 2023


NASA announced on Wednesday its newest discovery mission intended to explore a giant metal asteroid known as 16 Psyche. Unlike most asteroids that are made out of rock or ice, Psyche's inner core of metallic iron and nickel more closely resembles the Earth's core.

About three times farther away from the sun than the Earth, the robotic mission is expected to launch in October 2023, arriving at the asteroid in 2030 and a Mars flyby in 2025.

"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," said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the Psyche principal investigator for the mission. 

Psyche's unique core prompts scientists to question if the asteroid is actually an exposed core of an early planet--losing its rocky outer layers due to a number of collisions billions of years ago. 

If this hypothesis is proven true, scientists will be able to better understand how planets shed layers, including cores, mantles, and crusts. 

"...Psyche will directly observe the interior of a planetary body," NASA's Planetary Science Director Jim Green said in a statement. "These additional pieces of the puzzle will help us understand how the sun and its family of planets formed, changed over time, and became places where life could develop and be sustained - and what the future may hold."

The year 2023 may not come soon enough for some.


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