NASA announced on Wednesday two new science missions that aim to study the asteroids in the Solar System. The missions aim to visit eight asteroids in just eight years from 2025 to 2033.
The first mission, which involves the robotic spacecraft Lucy, is set for launch in October 2021. The probe is expected to be at its first destination — a main asteroid belt by 2025.
Trojan Asteroids: Fossils Of Planet Formation
Between the years 2027 and 2033, the spacecraft will explore six Jupiter Trojan asteroids, bodies that were trapped by the gravity of the Solar System's largest planet in two swarms that share Jupiter's orbit.
One of the swarms is leading and the other is trailing the giant planet in its 12-year orbit around the sun. These Trojans are dark bodies that are believed to be relics of an earlier era of the Solar System. They were possibly pulled into orbits near Jupiter during the Solar System's early days when the planets were still forming and migrating into the positions they have today.
Planetary scientist Harold Levison, from the Southwest Research Institute and principal investigator of the Lucy mission, explained that these small bodies are considered as the fossils of planet formation. They contain the same materials that have existed way back from the early days of the Solar System and are believed to contain important organic molecules.
The second mission, Psyche, is scheduled for launch in October 2023. It will send a robotic probe to study an object in the main asteroid belt that has been intriguing scientists: a giant metal asteroid called 16 Psyche.
Asteroid Composed Mainly Of Metallic Iron And Nickel
Unlike most asteroids that are icy or rocky, Psyche 16 is believed to be composed mostly of metallic iron and nickel, which is similar to the core of planet Earth. No other known object like it exists in the Solar System.
Scientists think that the asteroid could possibly be the exposed core of a planetary body, whose size could have been comparable to that of present-day Mars. It may have lost its rocky outer layers because of several violent collisions in the past.
The probe is set to arrive at the metallic asteroid in 2030 and will help researchers understand how planets and other celestial bodies separated into different layers namely the core, mantle and crust, early in their histories.
Huge asteroids may pose threats of catastrophic destruction when they get dangerously close to our planet prompting astronomers to survey the skies for the so-called Near-Earth objects (NEOs). These rocky bodies, however, also offer clues on the history of Earth and the Solar System.
NASA's planetary science director Jim Green said that the missions may provide a better understanding of how the sun and the planets in the Solar System have formed, as well as how these bodies evolved over time and became places where life could develop and be sustained.
"These are true missions of discovery that integrate into NASA's larger strategy of investigating how the solar system formed and evolved," Green said in a statement.