The Mysterious 16 Psyche Asteroid: NASA is going to Unlock the Secrets

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Credit: Maxar/ASU/P.Rubin/NASA/JPL-Caltech

In today’s article, we discuss the most recent space news, including NASA’s Psyche asteroid probe, which has finally launched with the assistance of Falcon Heavy. In the face of a fresh FAA report, SpaceX defends its Starling constellation, and a spin launch finds a wealthy new partner. This is the space race on a rainy day. NASA’s Psyche asteroid survey mission lifted out of pad 39a on a Falcon heavy rocket on Friday morning. After more than a year of delays, the October 13th launch went off without a hitch, forcing the $1.2 billion probe to wait for the start of its voyage to a metal-rich planet in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, nearly 2.2 billion miles distant.

Psyche is named after the asteroid 16 Psyche, which was found in 1852. 16 Psyche is the largest known metal. We only know nine rich asteroid in the system. This big metal object is 173 Mi by 144 Mi, roughly potato-shaped, and orbits so far away from us that scientists can only see it as a small pinprick of light, so they aren’t even sure of its composition. They know it has a high metal content, of course, but are unsure about the other parts of its makeup, which could be rock or sulfur—anything really—and it’s this mystery that the 6,000-pound probe was designed to solve. The 6,000-pound probe will take six years to reach its destination Once in orbit around the large asteroid, the psyche probe will use two multispectral cameras, a pair of magnetometers, and both a gamma-ray and neutron mass spectrometer to check for chemical composition up close.

It also has a radio experiment that will attempt to determine the gravitational field of the asteroid. That’s a lot of gear, especially for a mission that had been postponed for so long. Target for the Discovery program back in 2017; this being the same program that produced the Pathfinder and Insight Mars Lander missions originally targeting a 2023 launch, the date was moved to 2022 to match a more efficient trajectory, but then Along came Coid and messed everything up forcing the jet propulsion laboratory to push the launch date back to 2023 again. An independent investigation of JPL and the delays to psyche found that a lack of staffing was primarily responsible, which had been keeping people out of the lab for most of 2020 and 2021. So no surprise there and then just when they were preparing for an October 5th launch, the team found an issue with the engines and the whole thing was forced to delay one more week until psyche finally got its date with a falcon heavy on the 13th and that sort of effort price and scale of mission tips us off that psyche is a little more important than it looks on the surface and that’s because 16 psyche represents a unique opportunity to see what the inside of our own Planet could look like metal Rich asteroids like this asteroid are relatively rare at this size; again, there are only nine in the entire system so far.

Nasa experts believe there are two theories for how it got there. One 16 psyche was formed as the core of a protoplanet, a molten ball of rock that was crushed out of its planet during the birth of our solar system, or two, it’s an unmelted sliver of metal that was part of the primordial material drifting around our star when everything was creating. In any case, we’ll get a good view at what our planet’s core looks like, its composition, gravity, magnetic fields, and possibly even how it formed. It doesn’t hurt that the psyche probe will be assisting NASA in testing the existing power of our deep space laser communications grid. A system that we are currently developing and will be critical for our operations around Mars and beyond in the next decades.

Unfortunately, mining this asteroid is not a feasible option, as the amount of metal contained in 16 Psyche makes it value somewhere in the 10 quintili range. That’s just a wild guess. To be honest, we don’t have any technology that could safely bring 16 Psyche close enough for mining to be feasible, and the amount of metal it contains would flood markets, making it relatively worthless, so we’ll just have to keep it in mind if we ever need raw materials for space manufacturing when that technology becomes available. For the time being, the actual significance of this asteroid is in what it can tell us about our own planet and other worlds, such as Mars.

Surveys like this one aid in anything from material sciences to asteroid defense. In that instance, the samples returned could help us devise techniques for dealing with such things if they ever come close to Earth, as well as learn more about how more organic materials got into Earth’s composition in the first place. Sometimes just being curious about something is enough. After all, there’s still a lot we don’t know about our cosmos. The Federal Aviation Administration published a report on the risks connected with the re-entry of low-Earth orbit satellite constellations on October 5th, and in an unusual move, SpaceX has already fired back in 2020. While the reports suggest that by 2035, we should expect debris from deep orbiting constellations to injure or kill one person every two years. SpaceX claims that the report authors, Aerospace Corp., used outdated information and guesswork.

To begin with, reports like these are virtually always based on assumption based on existing facts, so that isn’t the issue. Aerospace Corp. was requested to quantify risk based on existing data, and they did so, discovering that the space industry hasn’t quite fulfilled the needed 90% success rate for debris disposal following a mission that largely involves debris from rocket launches. To be fair to Aerospace Corp., knowing that SpaceX has permission to expand their Starling constellation to 12,000 satellites and wants to continue expanding to over 40,000 low-Earth orbit units, they’re correct in thinking that math equates to a significant risk from just SpaceX, let alone other constellations like Amazon’s Project Kyper, but here’s where the SpaceX rebuttal raises some really good points.

First and foremost, according to SpaceX principal engineer David Goldstein, who wrote the company’s response, the original analysis assumes that SpaceX has the same after Mission disposal rates as the rest of the industry, when in fact it is one of the industry’s leaders in that regard, performing at a 99% disposal success rate post missions, owing to the reusability of company vehicles such as the Falcon 9, but second and most importantly, SpaceX designed their starlink units to be reusable. The Aerospace Corp analysis uses a 23-year-old NASA study about debris survival rates of old aridium communication satellites, which are so far removed from how modern satellites are made that this data couldn’t accurately predict danger statistics for any current constellations.

This isn’t to say that Aerospace Corp is entirely to blame; they used bad data and never bothered to reach out to companies like SpaceX for updates. Government agencies are notoriously underfunded and understaffed, yet this is the FAA’s exclusive responsibility. They published a report that didn’t take into account data that was more than two decades old, didn’t consider foreign government constellations like China’s upcoming Guang Network, and didn’t take into account. Recent changes to FCC filings, assuming over 54,000 licensed Starling satellites rather than the current number of around 7500. The paper itself appears to have focused on the expansion of the SpaceX system, ignoring other constellations such as Amazon’s Project Kyper.

We joke about Amazon not being a competitor, but we are not a regulatory authority. The main problem with this flop is that this type of report is actually required. SpaceX has a great track record, but even they have lost track of a fairing or had an uncontrolled re-entry of a rocket, and they’re far from the only ones operating right now. Regulations need to be made, but this report is a waste of resources the FAA will need to find a more trustworthy independent body and start over earlier this month space technology startup spin launch makers of the world’s first kinetic orbital launch. Some of you may recall that Spin Launch invented a high-powered catapult that uses a massive centrifuge inside a vacuum-sealed container to launch a payload at over 4,700 mph into the upper atmosphere.

When the vehicle reaches a height of around 60 kilometers, it ignites its engines and completes the orbiting process. This technology eliminates the requirement for a standard first-stage booster, which carries the majority of the weight of a rocket, but the spin launch system has its own limitations. With a 300 ft diameter vacuum chamber required for the final full-size model, as well as the speeds involved in the windup of the centrifuge arm, any potential malfunction could be catastrophic, but that’s nothing new in the rocketry field of course, and it appears that Sumitomo was impressed with spin launch after its smaller-scale tests back in 2021, when its scaled-down accelerator was 108 ft in diameter and hurled its test project. It will be great to see the full-size version. Return here every day for more updates on the aerospace sector and interstellar exploration. Thanks

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