Imagine a spacecraft propelled by solar energy, pursuing an asteroid considered to be the building block of a new planet. Sounds like a science-fiction plot, isn’t it? But this is exactly what NASA is aiming for with its new Psyche mission.
Nasa will use electric propulsion to push the Psyche spacecraft, which aims to target a metal-rich asteroid called Psyche located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.
The space organisation, in a blog, said that the new spacecraft will launch in August 2022 and travel about 2.4 billion kilometres over a span of 3.5 years to get close to the asteroid.
Scientists believe that asteroid Psyche is part of the building block of a new planet, called a planetesimal.
Planetesimal come together to combine and form planets. According to the Chamberlin–Moulton planetesimal hypothesis, these planetary bodies are thought to form out of cosmic dust and estimated to take about 4.6 billion years to come into existence.
Once it is pushed into orbit, the mission team will use scientific instruments to collect data. The mission is expected to improve our understanding of how rocky planets like Earth came into existence.
While the rocket will use the traditional chemical rocket engines of the Falcon Heavy launch vehicles, the rest of the 3.5-year journey will see Psyche relying on solar electric propulsion, a mechanism by which sunlight is converted to electricity.
Called Hall thrusters, the technology is not new, but Psyche will be the first spacecraft to use it beyond the Moon’s orbit.
Have you wondered how the spacecraft in Star Wars could actually work in real life? For the propellant, Psyche will carry tanks of Xenon, a noble gas that emits light in our car headlights and plasma TVs. Psyche will use its thrusters to expel charged ions of Xenons, which in turn will create thrust and gently propel Psyche through blue beams of ionized Xenon.