This 45 day mission – which begins Feb. 1, 2018 – will help our researchers learn how isolation and close quarters affect individual and group behavior. This study at our Johnson Space Center prepares us for long duration space missions, like a trip to an asteroid or even to Mars.
The Human Research Exploration Analog (HERA) that the crew members will be living in is one compact, science-making house. But unlike in a normal house, these inhabitants won’t go outside for 45 days. Their communication with the rest of planet Earth will also be very limited, and they won’t have any access to internet. So no checking social media, kids!
The only people they will talk with regularly are mission control and each other.
The HERA XVI crew is made up of 2 men and 2 women, selected from the Johnson Space Center Test Subject Screening (TSS) pool. The crew member selection process is based on a number of criteria, including criteria similar to what is used for astronaut selection. The four would-be astronauts are:
What will they be doing?
The crew are going on a simulated journey to an asteroid, a 715-day journey that we compress into 45 days. They will fly their simulated exploration vehicle around the asteroid once they arrive, conducting several site surveys before 2 of the crew members will participate in a series of virtual reality spacewalks.
They will also be participating in a suite of research investigations and will also engage in a wide range of operational and science activities, such as growing and analyzing plants and brine shrimp, maintaining and “operating” an important life support system, exercising on a stationary bicycle or using free weights, and sharpening their skills with a robotic arm simulation.
They work 16 hours a day, Monday through Friday. This includes time for daily planning, conferences, meals and exercise.
Mission: February 1, 2018 – March 19, 2018
But beware! While we do all we can to avoid crises during missions, crews need to be able to respond in the event of an emergency. The HERA crew will conduct a couple of emergency scenario simulations, including one that will require them to respond to a decrease in cabin pressure, potentially finding and repairing a leak in their spacecraft.
Throughout the mission, researchers will gather information about living in confinement, teamwork, team cohesion, mood, performance and overall well-being. The crew members will be tracked by numerous devices that each capture different types of data.
Every day, our spacecraft and people are exploring the solar system. Both the public and the private sectors are contributing to the quest. For example, here are ten things happening just this week:
1. We deliver.
The commercial space company Orbital ATK is targeting Saturday, Nov. 11 for the launch of its Cygnus spacecraft on an Antares rocket from Wallops Flight Facility in Wallops Island, Virginia. Cygnus is launching on a resupply mission to the International Space Station, carrying cargo and scientific experiments to the six people currently living on the microgravity laboratory.
Our Lunar Reconnaissance Orbiter (LRO) sure does—and from very close range. This robotic spacecraft has been orbiting Earth’s companion since 2009, returning views of the lunar surface that are so sharp they show the footpaths made by Apollo astronauts. Learn more about LRO and the entire history of lunar exploration at NASA’s newly-updated, expanded Moon site: moon.nasa.gov
4. Meanwhile at Mars…
Another sharp-eyed robotic spacecraft has just delivered a fresh batch of equally detailed images. Our Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) surveys the Red Planet’s surface daily, and you can see the very latest pictures of those exotic landscapes HERE. We currently operate five—count ‘em, five—active missions at Mars, with another (the InSight lander) launching next year. Track them all at: mars.nasa.gov.
5. Always curious.
One of those missions is the Curiosity rover. It’s currently climbing a rocky highland dubbed Vera Rubin Ridge, turning its full array of instruments on the intriguing geology there. Using those instruments, Curiosity can see things you and I can’t.
6. A new Dawn.
Our voyage to the asteroid belt has a new lease on life. The Dawn spacecraft recently received a mission extension to continue exploring the dwarf planet Ceres. This is exciting because minerals containing water are widespread on Ceres, suggesting it may have had a global ocean in the past. What became of that ocean? Could Ceres still have liquid today? Ongoing studies from Dawn could shed light on these questions.
7. There are eyes everywhere.
When our Mars Pathfinder touched down in 1997, it had five cameras: two on a mast that popped up from the lander, and three on the rover, Sojourner. Since then, photo sensors that were improved by the space program have shrunk in size, increased in quality and are now carried in every cellphone. That same evolution has returned to space. Our Mars 2020 mission will have more “eyes” than any rover before it: a grand total of 23, to create sweeping panoramas, reveal obstacles, study the atmosphere, and assist science instruments.
8. Voyage to a hidden ocean.
One of the most intriguing destinations in the solar system is Jupiter’s moon Europa, which hides a global ocean of liquid water beneath its icy shell. Our Europa Clipper mission sets sail in the 2020s to take a closer look than we’ve ever had before. You can explore Europa, too: europa.nasa.gov
9. Flight of the mockingbird.
On Nov. 10, the main belt asteroid 19482 Harperlee, named for the legendary author of To Kill a Mockingbird, makes its closest approach to Earth during the asteroid’s orbit around the Sun. Details HERE. Learn more about asteroids HERE. Meanwhile, our OSIRIS-REx mission is now cruising toward another tiny, rocky world called Bennu.
10. What else is up this month?
For sky watchers, there will be a pre-dawn pairing of Jupiter and Venus, the Moon will shine near some star clusters, and there will be meteor activity all month long. Catch our monthly video blog for stargazers HERE.
Since 2000, the International Space Station has been continuously occupied by humans. There, crew members live and work while conducting important research that benefits life on Earth and will even help us eventually travel to deep space destinations, like Mars.
2. We’re working to develop quieter supersonic aircraft that would allow you to travel from New York to Los Angeles in 2 hours
We are working hard to make flight greener, safer and quieter – all while developing aircraft that travel faster, and building an aviation system that operates more efficiently. Seventy years after Chuck Yeager broke the sound barrier in the Bell X-1 aircraft, we’re continuing that supersonic X-plane legacy by working to create a quieter supersonic jet with an aim toward passenger flight.
3. The spacecraft, rockets and systems developed to send astronauts to low-Earth orbit as part of our Commercial Crew Program is also helping us get to Mars
Changes to the human body during long-duration spaceflight are significant challenges to solve ahead of a mission to Mars and back. The space station allows us to perform long duration missions without leaving Earth’s orbit.
Although they are orbiting Earth, space station astronauts spend months at a time in near-zero gravity, which allows scientists to study several physiological changes and test potential solutions. The more time they spend in space, the more helpful the station crew members can be to those on Earth assembling the plans to go to Mars.
4. We’re launching a spacecraft in 2018 that will go “touch the Sun”
In the summer of 2018, we’re launching Parker Solar Probe, a spacecraft that will get closer to the Sun than any other in human history. Parker Solar Probe will fly directly through the Sun’s atmosphere, called the corona. Getting better measurements of this region is key to understanding our Sun.
For instance, the Sun releases a constant outflow of solar material, called the solar wind. We think the corona is where this solar wind is accelerated out into the solar system, and Parker Solar Probe’s measurements should help us pinpoint how that happens.
5. You can digitally fly along with spacecraft…that are actually in space…in real-time!
NASA’s Eyes are immersive, 3D simulations of real events, spacecraft locations and trajectories. Through this interactive app, you can experience Earth and our solar system, the universe and the spacecraft exploring them. Want to watch as our Juno spacecraft makes its next orbit around Juno? You can! Or relive all of the Voyager mission highlights in real-time? You can do that too! Download the free app HERE to start exploring.
6. When you feel far away from home, you can think of the New Horizons spacecraft as it heads toward the Kuiper Belt, and the Voyager spacecraft are beyond the influence of our sun…billions of miles away
Our New Horizons spacecraft completed its Pluto flyby in July 2015 and has continued on its way toward the Kuiper Belt. The spacecraft continues to send back important data as it travels toward deeper space at more than 32,000 miles per hour, and is ~3.2 billion miles from Earth.
In addition to New Horizons, our twin Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft are exploring where nothing from Earth has flown before. Continuing on their more-than-37-year journey since their 1977 launches, they are each much farther away from Earth and the sun than Pluto. In August 2012, Voyager 1 made the historic entry into interstellar space, the region between the stars, filled with material ejected by the death of nearby stars millions of years ago.
7. There are humans brave enough to not only travel in space, but venture outside space station to perform important repairs and updates during spacewalks
Just this month (October 2017) we’ve already had two spacewalks on the International Space Station…with another scheduled on Oct. 20.
Spacewalks are important events where crew members repair, maintain and upgrade parts of the International Space Station. These activities can also be referred to as EVAs – Extravehicular Activities. Not only do spacewalks require an enormous amount of work to prepare for, but they are physically demanding on the astronauts. They are working in the vacuum of space in only their spacewalking suit.
8. Smart people are up all night working in control rooms all over NASA to ensure that data keeps flowing from our satellites and spacecraft
Our satellites and spacecraft help scientists study Earth and space. Missions looking toward Earth provide information about clouds, oceans, land and ice. They also measure gases in the atmosphere, such as ozone and carbon dioxide and the amount of energy that Earth absorbs and emits. And satellites monitor wildfires, volcanoes and their smoke.
9. A lot of NASA-developed tech has been transferred for use to the public
Our Technology Transfer Program highlights technologies that were originally designed for our mission needs, but have since been introduced to the public market. HERE are a few spinoff technologies that you might not know about.
10. We have a spacecraft currently traveling to an asteroid to collect a sample and bring it back to Earth
OSIRIS-REx is our first-ever mission that will travel to an asteroid and bring a sample of it back to Earth. Currently, the spacecraft is on its way to asteroid Bennu where it will survey and map the object before it “high-fives” the asteroid with its robotic arm to collect a sample, which it will send to Earth.
If everything goes according to plan, on Sept. 24, 2023, the capsule containing the asteroid sample will make a soft landing in the Utah desert.
11. There are Earth-sized planets outside our solar system that may be habitable
To date, we have confirmed 3,000+ exoplanets, which are planets outside our solar system that orbit a Sun-like star. Of these 3,000, some are in the habitable zone – where the temperature is just right for liquid water to exist on the surface.
In 1960, the United States put its first Earth-observing environmental satellite into orbit around the planet. Over the decades, these satellites have provided invaluable information, and the vantage point of space has provided new perspectives on Earth.
The beauty of Earth is clear, and the artistry ranges from the surreal to the sublime.
13. We’re building a telescope that will be able to see the first stars ever formed in the universe
Wouldn’t it be neat to see a period of the universe’s history that we’ve never seen before? That’s exactly what the James Webb Space Telescope (JWST) will be able to do…plus more!
Specifically, Webb will see the first objects that formed as the universe cooled down after the Big Bang. We don’t know exactly when the universe made the first stars and galaxies – or how for that matter. That is what we are building Webb to help answer.
Happy Friday the 13th! We hope it’s out-of-this-world!
What’s next for NASA? A quick look at some of the big things coming up:
1. We will add to our existing robotic fleet at the Red Planet with the InSight Mars lander set to study the planet’s interior.
This terrestrial planet explorer will address one of the most fundamental issues of planetary and solar system science – understanding the processes that shaped the rocky planets of the inner solar system (including Earth) more than four billion years ago.
2. The Mars 2020 rover will look for signs of past microbial life, gather samples for potential future return to Earth.
The Mars 2020 mission takes the next step by not only seeking signs of habitable conditions on the Red Planet in the ancient past, but also searching for signs of past microbial life itself. The Mars 2020 rover introduces a drill that can collect core samples of the most promising rocks and soils and set them aside in a “cache” on the surface of Mars.
3. The James Webb Space Telescope will be the premier observatory of the next decade, studying the history of our Universe in infrared.
Webb will study every phase in the history of our Universe, ranging from the first luminous glows after the Big Bang, to the formation of solar systems capable of supporting life on planets like Earth, to the evolution of our own solar system.
4. The Parker Solar Probe will “touch the Sun,” traveling closer to the surface than any spacecraft before.
This spacecraft, about the size of a small car, will travel directly into the sun’s atmosphere about 4 million miles from our star’s surface. Parker Solar Probe and its four suites of instruments – studying magnetic and electric fields, energetic particles, and the solar wind – will be protected from the Sun’s enormous heat by a 4.5-inch-thick carbon-composite heat shield.
5. Our OSIRIS-REx spacecraft arrives at the near-Earth asteroid Bennu in August 2018, and will return a sample for study in 2023.
This mission will help scientists investigate how planets formed and how life began, as well as improve our understanding of asteroids that could impact Earth.
The Transiting Exoplanet Survey Satellite (TESS) is the next step in the search for planets outside of our solar system (exoplanets), including those that could support life. The mission will find exoplanets that periodically block part of the light from their host stars, events called transits.
The mission will place a spacecraft in orbit around Jupiter in order to perform a detailed investigation of Europa – a world that shows strong evidence for an ocean of liquid water beneath its icy crust and which could host conditions favorable for life.
We’ve issued a draft announcement seeking U.S. industry-led studies for an advanced solar electric propulsion (SEP) vehicle capability. The studies will help define required capabilities and reduce risk for the 50 kilowatt-class SEP needed for the agency’s near-term exploration goals.
Our Dawn mission to the asteroid belt is no ordinary deep space expedition.
Instead of traditional chemical rockets, the spacecraft uses sophisticated ion engines for propulsion. This enabled Dawn to become the first mission to orbit not one, but two different worlds — first the giant asteroid Vesta and now the dwarf planet Ceres. Vesta and Ceres formed early in the solar system’s history, and by studying them, the mission is helping scientists go back in time to the dawn of the planets. To mark a decade since Dawn was launched on Sept. 27, 2007, here are 10 things to know about this trailblazing mission.
1. Ion Engines: Not Just for Sci-Fi Anymore
Most rocket engines use chemical reactions for propulsion, which tend to be powerful but short-lived. Dawn’s futuristic, hyper-efficient ion propulsion system works by using electricity to accelerate ions (charged particles) from xenon fuel to a speed seven to 10 times that of chemical engines. Ion engines accelerate the spacecraft slowly, but they’re very thrifty with fuel, using just milligrams of xenon per second (about 10 ounces over 24 hours) at maximum thrust. Without its ion engines, Dawn could not have carried enough fuel to go into orbit around two different solar system bodies. Try your hand at an interactive ion engine simulation.
2. Time Capsules
Scientists have long wanted to study Vesta and Ceres up close. Vesta is a large, complex and intriguing asteroid. Ceres is the largest object in the entire asteroid belt, and was once considered a planet in its own right after it was discovered in 1801. Vesta and Ceres have significant differences, but both are thought to have formed very early in the history of the solar system, harboring clues about how planets are constructed. Learn more about Ceres and Vesta—including why we have pieces of Vesta here on Earth.
3. Portrait of a Dwarf Planet
This view of Ceres built from Dawn photos is centered on Occator Crater, home of the famous “bright spots.” The image resolution is about 460 feet (140 meters) per pixel.
Craters on Ceres are named for agricultural deities from all over the world, and other features carry the names of agricultural festivals. Ceres itself was named after the Roman goddess of corn and harvests (that’s also where the word “cereal” comes from). The International Astronomical Union recently approved 25 new Ceres feature names tied to the theme of agricultural deities. Jumi, for example, is the Latvian god of fertility of the field. Study the full-size map.
5. Landslides or Ice Slides?
Thanks to Dawn, evidence is mounting that Ceres hides a significant amount of water ice. A recent study adds to this picture, showing how ice may have shaped the variety of landslides seen on Ceres today.
6. The Lonely Mountain
Ahuna Mons, a 3-mile-high (5-kilometer-high) mountain, puzzled Ceres explorers when they first found it. It rises all alone above the surrounding plains. Now scientists think it is likely a cryovolcano — one that erupts a liquid made of volatiles such as water, instead of rock. “This is the only known example of a cryovolcano that potentially formed from a salty mud mix, and that formed in the geologically recent past,” one researcher said. Learn more.
7. Shining a Light on the Bright Spots
The brightest area on Ceres, located in the mysterious Occator Crater, has the highest concentration of carbonate minerals ever seen outside Earth, according to studies from Dawn scientists. Occator is 57 miles (92 kilometers) wide, with a central pit about 6 miles (10 kilometers) wide. The dominant mineral of this bright area is sodium carbonate, a kind of salt found on Earth in hydrothermal environments. This material appears to have come from inside Ceres, and this upwelling suggests that temperatures inside Ceres are warmer than previously believed. Even more intriguingly, the results suggest that liquid water may have existed beneath the surface of Ceres in recent geological time. The salts could be remnants of an ocean, or localized bodies of water, that reached the surface and then froze millions of years ago. See more details.
8. Captain’s Log
Dawn’s chief engineer and mission director, Marc Rayman, provides regular dispatches about Dawn’s work in the asteroid belt. Catch the latest updates here.
9. Eyes on Dawn
Another cool way to retrace Dawn’s decade-long flight is to download NASA’s free Eyes on the Solar System app, which uses real data to let you go to any point in the solar system, or ride along with any spacecraft, at any point in time—all in 3-D.
10. No Stamp Required
Send a postcard from one of these three sets of images that tell the story of dwarf planet Ceres, protoplanet Vesta, and the Dawn mission overall.
See history in the making on September 22! That’s the day OSIRIS-REx, the first U.S. mission to carry samples from an asteroid back to Earth, will make a close approach to Earth as it uses our planet’s gravity to slingshot itself toward the asteroid Bennu.
Over the course of several days, observatories and amateur astronomers will be able to spot the spacecraft. Below, 10 things to know about this incredible mission that will bring us the largest sample returned from space since the Apollo era.
1. Big Deal
OSIRIS-REx seeks answers to the questions that are central to the human experience: Where did we come from? What is our destiny? Asteroids, the leftover debris from the solar system formation process, can help us answer these questions and teach us about the history of the Sun and planets.
2. That’s a Long Acronym
Yup. OSIRIS-REx stands for the Origins, Spectral Interpretation, Resource Identification, Security-Regolith Explorer spacecraft. The gist: It will rendezvous with, study, and return a sample of the asteroid Bennu to Earth.
3. Lots of Instruments, Too
While all the acronyms for each instrument may be alphabet soup, each has a job/role to perform in order to complete the mission. Explore what each one will do in this interactive webpage.
4. Nice to Meet You, Bennu
Scientists chose Bennu as the mission target because of its composition, size, and proximity to Earth. Bennu is a rare B-type asteroid (primitive and carbon-rich), which is expected to have organic compounds and water-bearing minerals like clays.
5. Hard Knock Life
Bennu had a tough life in a rough neighborhood: the early solar system. It’s an asteroid the size of a small mountain born from the rubble of a violent collision, hurled through space for millions of years and dismembered by the gravity of planets—but that’s exactly what makes it a fascinating destination.
6. High Fives All Around
In 2018, OSIRIS-REx will approach Bennu and begin an intricate dance with the asteroid, mapping and studying Bennu in preparation for sample collection. In July 2020, the spacecraft will perform a daring maneuver in which its 11-foot arm will reach out for a five-second “high-five” to stir up surface material, collecting at least 2 ounces (60 grams) of small rocks and dust into a sample return capsule.
7. Home Sweet Home
OSIRIS-REx launched on September 8, 2016 from Cape Canaveral, Florida on an Atlas V rocket. In March 2021, the window for departure from the asteroid will open and OSIRIS-REx will begin its return journey to Earth, arriving two-and-a-half years later in September 2023.
8. Precious Cargo
The sample will head to Earth inside of a return capsule with a heat shield and parachutes that will separate from the spacecraft once it enters the Earth’s atmosphere. The capsule containing the sample will be collected at the Utah Test and Training Range. Once it arrives, it will be transported to NASA’s Johnson Space Center in Houston for examination. For two years after the sample return (from late 2023-2025) the science team will catalog the sample and conduct the analysis needed to meet the mission science goals. NASA will preserve at least 75% of the sample at NASA’s Johnson Space Flight Center in Houston for further research by scientists worldwide, including future generations of scientists.
9. Knowledge Is Power
Analyzing the sample will help scientists understand the early solar system, as well as the hazards and resources of near-Earth space. Asteroids are remnants of the building blocks that formed the planets and enabled life. Those like Bennu contain natural resources such as water, organics and metals. Future space exploration and economic development may rely on asteroids for these materials.
We love Lucy—our spacecraft that will visit the ancient Trojan asteroids near Jupiter, that is. This week, let us count the ways this 2021 mission could revolutionize what we know about the origins of Earth and ourselves.
1. Lucky Lucy
Earlier this year, we selected the Lucy mission to make the first-ever visit to a group of asteroids known as the Trojans. This swarm of asteroids orbits in two loose groups around the Sun, with one group always ahead of Jupiter in its path, and the other always behind. The bodies are stabilized by the Sun and Jupiter in a gravitational balancing act, gathering in locations known as Lagrange points.
2. Old. Really, Really Old
Jupiter’s swarms of Trojan asteroids may be remnants of the material that formed our outer planets more than 4 billion years ago—so these fossils may help reveal our most distant origins. “They hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the solar system,” said Dr. Harold F. Levison, Lucy principal investigator from Southwest Research Institute (SwRI) in Boulder, Colorado.
3. A Link to The Beatles
Lucy takes its name from the fossilized human ancestor, called “Lucy” by her discoverers, whose skeleton provided unique insight into humanity’s evolution. On the night it was discovered in 1974, the team’s celebration included dancing and singing to The Beatles’ song “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds.” At some point during that evening, expedition member Pamela Alderman named the skeleton “Lucy,” and the name stuck. Jump ahead to 2013 and the mission’s principal investigator, Dr. Levison, was inspired by that link to our beginnings to name the spacecraft after Lucy the fossil. The connection to The Beatles’ song was just icing on the cake.
4. Travel Itinerary
One of two missions selected in a highly competitive process, Lucy will launch in October 2021. With boosts from Earth’s gravity, it will complete a 12-year journey to seven different asteroids: a Main Belt asteroid and six Trojans.
5. Making History
No other space mission in history has been launched to as many different destinations in independent orbits around the Sun. Lucy will show us, for the first time, the diversity of the primordial bodies that built the planets.
6. What Lies Beneath
Lucy’s complex path will take it to both clusters of Trojans and give us our first close-up view of all three major types of bodies in the swarms (so-called C-, P- and D-types). The dark-red P- and D-type Trojans resemble those found in the Kuiper Belt of icy bodies that extends beyond the orbit of Neptune. The C-types are found mostly in the outer parts of the Main Belt of asteroids, between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. All of the Trojans are thought to be abundant in dark carbon compounds. Below an insulating blanket of dust, they are probably rich in water and other volatile substances.
This time-lapsed animation shows the movements of the inner planets (Mercury, brown; Venus, white; Earth, blue; Mars, red), Jupiter (orange), and the two Trojan swarms (green) during the course of the Lucy mission.
9. Long To-Do List
Lucy and its impressive suite of remote-sensing instruments will study the geology, surface composition, and physical properties of the Trojans at close range. The payload includes three imaging and mapping instruments, including a color imaging and infrared mapping spectrometer and a thermal infrared spectrometer. Lucy also will perform radio science investigations using its telecommunications system to determine the masses and densities of the Trojan targets.
10. Dream Team
Several institutions will come together to successfully pull off this mission. The Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado, is the principal investigator institution. Our Goddard Space Flight Center will provide overall mission management, systems engineering, and safety and mission assurance. Lockheed Martin Space Systems in Denver will build the spacecraft. Instruments will be provided by Goddard, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and Arizona State University. Discovery missions are overseen by the Planetary Missions Program Office at our Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville, Alabama, for our Planetary Science Division.
Asteroids—named by British astronomer William Herschel from the Greek expression meaning “star-like"—are rocky, airless worlds that are too small to be called planets. But what they might lack in size they certainly make up for in number: An estimated 1.1 to 1.9 million asteroids larger than 1 kilometer are in the Main Belt between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. And there are millions more that are smaller in size. Asteroids range in size from Vesta—the largest at about 329 miles (529 kilometers) wide—to bodies that are just a few feet across.
2. What Lies Beneath
Asteroids are generally categorized into three types: carbon-rich, silicate, or metallic, or some combination of the three. Why the different types? It all comes down to how far from the sun they formed. Some experienced high temperatures and partly melted, with iron sinking to the center and volcanic lava forced to the surface. The asteroid Vesta is one example we know of today.
In 1801, Giuseppe Piazzi discovered the first and then-largest asteroid, Ceres, orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. Ceres is so large that it encompasses about one-fourth of the estimated total mass of all the asteroids in the asteroid belt. In 2006, its classification changed from asteroid to as a dwarf planet.
5. Mission to a Metal World
NASA’s Psyche mission will launch in 2022 to explore an all-metal asteroid—what could be the core of an early planet—for the very first time. And in October 2021, the Lucy mission will be the first to visit Jupiter’s swarms of Trojan asteroids.
6. Near-Earth Asteroids
The term ‘near’ in near-Earth asteroid is actually a misnomer; most of these bodies do not come close to Earth at all. By definition, a near-Earth asteroid is an asteroid that comes within 28 million miles (44 million km) of Earth’s orbit. As of June 19, 2017, there are 16,209 known near-Earth asteroids, with 1,803 classified as potentially hazardous asteroids (those that could someday pose a threat to Earth).
7. Comin’ in Hot
About once a year, a car-sized asteroid hits Earth’s atmosphere, creates an impressive fireball, and burns up before reaching the surface.
8. But We’re Keeping an Eye Out
Ground-based observatories and facilities such as Pan-STARRS, the Catalina Sky Survey, and ATLAS are constantly on the hunt to detect near-Earth asteroids. NASA also has a small infrared observatory in orbit about the Earth: NEOWISE. In addition to detecting asteroids and comets, NEOWISE also characterizes these small bodies.
9. Buddy System
Roughly one-sixth of the asteroid population have a small companion moon (some even have two moons). The first discovery of an asteroid-moon system was of asteroid Ida and its moon Dactyl in 1993.
10. Earthly Visitors
Several NASA space missions have flown to and observed asteroids. The NEAR Shoemaker mission landed on asteroid Eros in 2001 and NASA’s Dawn mission was the first mission to orbit an asteroid in 2011. In 2005, the Japanese spacecraft Hayabusa landed on asteroid Itokawa. Currently, NASA’s OSIRIS-REx is en route to a near-Earth asteroid called Bennu; it will bring a small sample back to Earth for study.
Our Psyche mission to a metal world, which will explore a giant metal asteroid known as 16 Psyche, is getting a new, earlier launch date. Psyche is now expected to launch from the Kennedy Space Center in 2022, cruise through the solar system for 4.6 years, and arrive at the Psyche asteroid in 2026, four years earlier than planned.
Below are 10 things to know about this mission to a completely new and unexplored type of world.
1. Psyche, Squared
Psyche is the name of the NASA space mission and the name of the unique metal asteroid orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter. The asteroid was discovered in 1852 by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis and named after the Greek mythological figure Psyche, whom Cupid fell in love with. “Psyche” in Greek also means “soul.”
2. Mission: Accepted
The Psyche Mission was selected for flight earlier this year under NASA’s Discovery Program. And it will take a village to pull off: The spacecraft is being built by Space Systems Loral in Palo Alto, California; the mission is led by Arizona State University; and NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory will be responsible for mission management, operations and navigation.
3. An Unusual Asteroid
For the very first time, this mission will let us examine a world made not of rock and ice, but metal. Scientists think Psyche is comprised mostly of metallic iron and nickel, similar to Earth’s core – which means Psyche could be an exposed core of an early planet as large as Mars.
4. Sweet 16
Psyche the asteroid is officially known as 16 Psyche, since it was the 16th asteroid to be discovered. It lies within the asteroid belt, is irregularly shaped, about the size of Massachusetts, and is about three times farther away from the sun than Earth.
5. Discoveries Abound
The Psyche mission will observe the asteroid for 20 months. Scientists hope to discover whether Psyche is the core of an early planet, how old it is, whether it formed in similar ways to Earth’s core, and what its surface is like. The mission will also help scientists understand how planets and other bodies separated into their layers including cores, mantles and crusts early in their histories. “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,” said Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University.
6. Think Fast
The mission launch and arrival were moved up because Psyche’s mission design team were able to plot a more efficient trajectory that no longer calls for an Earth gravity assist, ultimately shortening the cruise time. The new trajectory also stays farther from the sun, reducing the amount of heat protection needed for the spacecraft, and will still include a Mars flyby in 2023.
7. Gadgets Galore
The Psyche spacecraft will be decked out with a multispectral imager, gamma ray and neutron spectrometer, magnetometer, and X-band gravity science investigation. More: https://sese.asu.edu/research/psyche
8. Stunning Solar Panels
In order to support the new mission trajectory, the solar array system was redesigned from a four-panel array in a straight row on either side of the spacecraft to a more powerful five-panel x-shaped design, commonly used for missions requiring more capability. Much like a sports car, combining a relatively small spacecraft body with a very high-power solar array design means the Psyche spacecraft will be able to speed to its destination much faster. Check out this artist’s-concept illustration here: https://www.nasa.gov/image-feature/artists-concept-of-psyche-spacecraft-with-five-panel-array
9. See For Yourself
Watch the planned Psyche mission in action.
10. Even More Asteroids
Our missions to asteroids began with the orbiter NEAR of asteroid Eros, which arrived in 2000, and continues with Dawn, which orbited Vesta and is now in an extended mission at Ceres. The mission OSIRIS-REx, which launched on Sept. 8, 2016, is speeding toward a 2018 rendezvous with the asteroid Bennu, and will deliver a sample back to Earth in 2023. The Lucy mission is scheduled to launch in October 2021 and will explore six Jupiter Trojan asteroids. More: https://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.php?feature=6713
Want to learn more? Read our full list of the 10 things to know this week about the solar system HERE.