NASA is heading to a world unlike any yet explored by humankind – a large asteroid believed to be made almost entirely of metal.

It will take six years, after the successful launch today, for a spacecraft to reach an asteroid called Psyche that could open new windows into everything from the formation of planets like Earth to the prospect of mining in space.

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By sending a spacecraft on a journey of 2 billion miles, scientists hope to learn something about the core of our own planet. NASA’s mission to a metal-rich asteroid is about curiosity and creativity.

The Psyche mission will pioneer the use of laser signals to send information back to Earth. The craft’s thrusters are also innovative, using a solar-powered electric field to amplify the propellant’s force.  

But most compelling is the target itself. One tantalizing possibility is that the asteroid offers the opportunity to directly glimpse the remnant of the core of a small planet that never fully formed. The mission scientists won’t know what secrets Psyche holds until they get the craft there and gather data.

“Humanity has always been that species that wondered what’s over that next hill,” says Alan Fitzsimmons, an astronomer at Queen’s University Belfast, “and this is just an example where the hills are a bit further away than normal.”

It is a world unlike any yet explored by humankind. No spacecraft, no probe of any kind, has ventured close to anything like this – a large asteroid believed to be made almost entirely of metal.

Now NASA is on the way there. 

After a successful launch today, a space probe will begin a six-year journey to an asteroid called Psyche that could open new windows into everything from the formation of planets like Earth to the prospect of mining in space.

Why We Wrote This

A story focused on

By sending a spacecraft on a journey of 2 billion miles, scientists hope to learn something about the core of our own planet. NASA’s mission to a metal-rich asteroid is about curiosity and creativity.

At a time when asteroids are a rising focus for space exploration, the Psyche mission is remarkable in several ways. It will pioneer the use of laser signals to send information back to Earth. The craft’s thrusters are also innovative, using a solar-powered electric field to amplify the propellant’s force. 

But most compelling is the target itself. Residing in the asteroid belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter, Psyche has a 64,000-square-mile surface area about the size of Florida, the state from which the launch occurred. One tantalizing possibility is that the asteroid offers an unprecedented opportunity to directly glimpse the remnant of a small planet core – in this case, one that failed to fully form. But ultimately the current mission, scientists say, must unlock Psyche’s secrets.

“The thing that excites us most about this is that we really don’t know what Psyche is,” says Ben Weiss of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, deputy principal investigator and magnetometry investigation lead on the Psyche mission. “In our standard view, the one we think is most likely, it’s already very strange compared to anything we’ve sent a spacecraft to – and if it’s not that thing, then it’s even stranger than we’ve imagined.” 

Marcio Jose Sanchez/AP/File

Technicians work on the Psyche spacecraft at the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory, April 11, 2022, in Pasadena, California.

Is it a planetary core?

Psyche is the largest of a rare breed of asteroids – those that are metal-rich, known as M-types. This one may be heavy on iron and nickel.



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