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NASA plans two new Discovery Program asteroid intercept missions

NASA is preparing for a pair of new asteroid-exploration missions, which will launch in the early 2020s. These missions are part of the Discovery Program, which seeks to investigate remnants of the early solar system in a somewhat low-cost way. Past Discovery missions include Mars Pathfinder, Stardust, and Dawn. The first mission to launch will be dubbed Lucy, a probe built by Lockheed-Martin to study Jupiter’s so-called Trojan asteroids. The second is known as Psyche and aims to visit a worldlet made almost entirely out of metal.

Since Lucy is the first mission on the docket, the details are a bit more fleshed out. Lockheed will base the design on the recently launched OSIRIS-REx mission, which is currently en route to the asteroid Bennu. The plan is to launch Lucy in October 2021 for an efficient transfer to Jupiter’s orbit. Along the way it will stop off at a main belt asteroid in 2025, but the final destination is a swarm of asteroids trapped by Jupiter’s gravity.

Trojan asteroids are small celestial bodies that are gravitationally bound in locations along the orbit of a planet at the leading (L4) and trailing (L5) Lagrange points. A number of planets have “Trojan asteroids,” including Earth, although we only have one. Jupiter has thousands of Trojan bodies because of its massive gravity. We don’t know for certain what these objects are — they might be captured objects from the Kuiper Belt, or even comets from the Oort Cloud. Most astronomers believe their presence along the orbit of Jupiter in such large numbers indicates they are leftovers from the creation of the planets. Lucy will study six of these objects between 2027 and 2033.

There are fewer details on Psyche, but it might be even cooler than Lucy. Psyche shares a name with its target, the asteroid 16 Psyche. As the name implies, it was just the 16th minor planet discovered way back in 1852. The probe will make it way out to 16 Psyche in 2030 after launching in October of 2023. This is an intriguing target for study, because not only is 16 Psyche large at over 150 miles in diameter, it’s incredibly massive. This object contains almost 1% of the mass of the entire asteroid belt.

NASA scientists believe that 16 Psyche is almost entirely composed of nickel-iron metal. It’s essentially an exposed planetary core that was blasted free of its rocky home in a long-past collision, something that was common in the early solar system. This will be our first chance to physically study a planetary core not unlike our own in detail.

The hardware specifics of Psyche have yet to be determined, but NASA has two years longer to get that figured out. The next order of business in the Discovery program is to get Lucy ready for launch.

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