NASA's Psyche mission, which aims to visit and study a metal asteroid of the same name, will launch a year earlier than previously planned.
On May 25, the U.S. space agency said that that the mission will launch in the summer of 2022 instead of the original October 2023 launch schedule. The probe is now set to arrive at the main asteroid belt in 2026, or four years earlier than initially planned.
NASA's Planetary Science Division director Jim Green said that launching the mission at an earlier date will provide a more efficient trajectory, which would allow the mission to accomplish its science objectives earlier and at a lower cost.
The spacecraft's new trajectory is more efficient because it no longer calls for an Earth gravity assist, which shortens the probe's travel time. The new trajectory will also keep the spacecraft farther from the sun, which will reduce the needed amount of heat protection. The new trajectory, though, will still require a Mars gravity assist by year 2023.
To support the new trajectory, the Space Systems Loral (SSL) in California, which builds the spacecraft, made changes to the design of the solar array system.
From having a four-panel array in a straight row on both of its sides, the probe would have more powerful five panels with x-shaped design, which is often used for missions that need more capability.
Combining a relatively small body with high-powered solar arrays design would get the Psyche spacecraft to its target destination at a faster pace than when it is built with a larger body. The solar arrays will also give the spacecraft the power needed to support the higher velocity requirements of the mission.
The Psyche mission is part of NASA's Discovery Program, a series of space missions to explore the solar system. It will particularly study the unique asteroid Psyche.
The irregularly shaped asteroid, which measures about 130 miles in diameter, is one of the largest known asteroids. The object is also one of the most massive in the asteroid belt, having a little less than 1 percent of the entire asteroid belt's' total mass.
Unlike most known asteroids in the solar system with rocky and icy bodies, Psyche is primarily made of pure nickel-iron metal. It is believed to be 90 percent iron and nickel and 10 percent silicate rock. It is also the only known core-like object in the solar system.
NASA wants to study this body, as it could shed more light on the interiors and layers of planets and moons since Psyche could possibly be a planetary body whose outer layers were removed due to violent collisions with other objects billions of years ago.
"This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world — not one of rock or ice, but of metal," Psyche Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton said. "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."