The Earth’s core is located 3,000 kilometers deep. It is almost the distance that separates Paris from Moscow. To better understand the depths of our planet, NASA is going to undertake a journey of several million kilometers. The Psyque mission departs this Friday from the Kennedy Space Center towards the asteroid Psyque 16, which gives its name to the mission. The space probe is expected to reach its destination in 2029.
Psyche is an asteroid with unique characteristics. Located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and with a diameter of just over 200 kilometers, it is the largest metallic object discovered so far in the solar system. It is mainly composed of iron and nickel, which makes it very similar to the Earth’s core. It is not known exactly how it was formed. A possible explanation is that it is a planetesimal, the heart of a planet that never formed and whose rocky surface would have been torn off by the impacts of other stellar bodies. An alternative is that this richness in metals would be explained by volcanic activity. The iron would have escaped from its core in successive eruptions. It could also be that it formed as an accumulation of metallic material near the Sun.
The launched probe, the size of a large SUV, will take almost six years to reach its destination. Once there, it will orbit around it for more than two years to study in detail its composition – what is known so far is deduced from how sunlight is reflected on its surface – and other characteristics. To do this, it has, among other instruments, a magnetometer to detect if it has a magnetic field; a gamma ray spectrometer and another neutron spectrometer, which measure the emissions that come out of the asteroid when it is hit by energetic particles from space. It will also test a communication mechanism with the Earth that can achieve transmission capacities between 10 and 100 times greater than traditional radio ones.
The mission also has an economic component. Psyche, which was discovered in 1852 by an Italian astronomer, has a value estimated to be 70,000 times the entire current world economy. The reason is that in addition to iron and nickel, it could contain gold and platinum.