Spaceflight Insider

NASA selects Lucy and Psyche for next Discovery missions

Lucy and Psyche

The Lucy (left) and Psyche missions will study two different types of unexplored asteroids in the Solar System. Image Credit: SwRI and SSL / Peter Rubin

NASA announced in a news release its next Discovery-class missions will be Lucy and Psyche. The missions will study an array of unexplored asteroids, with Lucy embarking on a tour of Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids and Psyche setting course for the metallic asteroid 16 Psyche.

The final missions were selected from a list of five semi-finalist missions with destinations that also included missions to Venus and a near-Earth object monitoring spacecraft called NEOCam.

lucy orbit path

Lucy’s projected orbital path around the Solar System. Image Credit: SwRI

Lucy


Lucy is scheduled to launch in 2021 and will explore a total of seven asteroids between 2025–2033 during its prime mission. Between 2027–2033, Lucy will explore six Trojan asteroids that lead and trail Jupiter’s orbit at its L4 and L5 Lagrange points.

Very little is known about Jupiter’s Trojan asteroids, but they are thought to be captured asteroids, comets, or even Kuiper Belt objects hailing from beyond Neptune’s orbit. Studying the Trojan asteroids will lead to new insights not only into the asteroids themselves but also to the Solar System’s early history.

Lucy is to be built by Lockheed Martin Corporation and led by Harold Levison of the Southwest Research Institute in Boulder, Colorado.

“This is a unique opportunity,” Levison said in the release. “Because the Trojans are remnants of the primordial material that formed the outer planets, they hold vital clues to deciphering the history of the Solar System. Lucy, like the human fossil for which it is named, will revolutionize the understanding of our origins.”

Psyche


Launching in 2023, Psyche will arrive at its namesake asteroid in 2030. 16 Psyche is a metallic asteroid thought to be the remnant core of a planet about the size of Mars but was nearly obliterated due to several sustained, large impact events early in the Solar System’s history.

Studying Psyche will reveal details about a little-understood class of asteroids and could yield insights into the internal composition of other terrestrial planets, such as Earth and Mars.

Psyche will be built by Space Systems Lorel of Palo Alto, California, and operated by Arizona State University in Tempe under Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton.

“This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world – not one of rock or ice, but of metal,” 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 [of a planet]. We learn about inner space by visiting outer space.”

Psyche: accretion schematic keystone

A diagram showing how hit-and-run and accretion impacts can alter the evolution of a potential planet. Image Credit: Arizona State University

Missions of discovery


In addition to selecting Lucy and Psyche, NASA will extend funding for the Near-Earth Object Camera (NEOCam) project – another one of the five semi-finalist Discovery mission concepts – for an additional year.

NEOCam is a space telescope designed to survey the regions of space closest to Earth for potentially hazardous asteroids.

NASA’s Discovery mission directorate seeks to fund relatively lower-cost missions to undertake more specialized science investigations. Their development costs are capped at $450 million. Previous missions in this program have included the Mars Pathfinder mission, MESSENGER to Mercury, the currently operating Dawn spacecraft orbiting Ceres, and the upcoming InSight Mars lander, which is due to launch in May 2018.

“These are true missions of discovery that integrate into NASA’s larger strategy of investigating how the Solar System formed and evolved,” said Jim Green, NASA’s planetary science director. “We’ve explored terrestrial planets, gas giants, and a range of other bodies orbiting the Sun. Lucy will observe primitive remnants from farther out in the Solar System, while Psyche will directly observe the interior of a planetary body. These additional pieces of the puzzle will help us understand how the Sun and its family of planets formed, changed over time, and became places where life could develop and be sustained – and what the future may hold.”

Video courtesy of NASA

 

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Paul is currently a graduate student in Space and Planetary Sciences at the University of Akransas in Fayetteville. He grew up in the Kansas City area and developed an interest in space at a young age at the start of the twin Mars Exploration Rover missions in 2003. He began his studies in aerospace engineering before switching over to geology at Wichita State University where he earned a Bachelor of Science in 2013. After working as an environmental geologist for a civil engineering firm, he began his graduate studies in 2016 and is actively working towards a PhD that will focus on the surficial processes of Mars. He also participated in a 2-week simluation at The Mars Society's Mars Desert Research Station in 2014 and remains involved in analogue mission studies today. Paul has been interested in science outreach and communication over the years which in the past included maintaining a personal blog on space exploration from high school through his undergraduate career and in recent years he has given talks at schools and other organizations over the topics of geology and space. He is excited to bring his experience as a geologist and scientist to the Spaceflight Insider team writing primarily on space science topics.

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