New NASA missions to study ‘fossils’ of the solar system

NASA has announced a pair of space exploration missions that will study asteroids vital to deciphering the origins of the solar system.

The agency said Wednesday that the two missions will send spacecraft to several asteroids to investigate how planets and other bodies in the solar system formed roughly 10 million years after the birth of the sun.

The first mission, known as Lucy, is set to launch in 2021. This robotic spacecraft will fly by and study the physical properties of the Trojan asteroids, which share Jupiter’s orbit. The Trojans are thought to be remnants of the material that formed the solar system’s more distant planets.

These asteroids are considered “fossils” of planet formation and can provide clues about how the outer solar system came to be, said Lucy principal investigator Harold F. Levison of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

“The big outer planets had a profound effect, we believe, on how the Earth formed,” Levison told NewsHour. “So understanding how they formed has impacts on how we understand how the Earth got here.”

The second mission will explore a large metal asteroid known as 16 Psyche. The asteroid measures about 150 miles in diameter and is made of metallic iron and nickel. Some scientists believe it is an exposed core from an early planet, which likely lost its rocky outer layers due to a series of collisions with other space objects.

“We really do think that Psyche is the core of an early planet, and that means that it’s the only way that humankind will ever see a core,” Psyche mission principal investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University told the PBS NewsHour.

Psyche, which is slated for take-off in 2023, will orbit the asteroid for 20 months, examining physical features on the surface, its magnetic field and chemical composition. The mission will help scientists understand how planets and other bodies in the solar system separated into their layers.

The two missions were chosen by NASA from five finalists that submitted proposals for spaceflight investigations. They will be part of NASA’s Discovery program, which launches small, low-cost space exploration missions.

“What I hope is that all the kinds of space missions that we do serve to inspire people to take more action in the word,” Elkins-Tanton said. “Hopefully, seeing people do risky, high-flying kinds of exploration efforts like what we’re doing can inspire people to take on bigger problems in their lives.”