For the first time, NASA is planning on visiting a metal asteroid that’s believed to be an exposed core of an early planet. According to the space agency, the upcoming mission could provide a deeper understanding on the formation of terrestrial planets.

NASA unveiled details of its future mission through a recent statement. The target of the mission will be the asteroid named Psyche.

Psyche is a massive metallic asteroid with a diameter of around 140 miles, which is about as long as the distance between San Diego and Los Angeles. It is located between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter and is about 235 million miles from the Sun.

The upcoming mission will serve as a historic move for NASA since it will mark the first time that the space agency will be able to visit and study a new type of world that’s completely made of metal. Through its various missions on different moons, planets and asteroids, NASA has mostly encountered rocky and icy surfaces.

NASA theorized that Psyche is actually an exposed nickel-iron core of a planet that’s currently in its early stages. If this is true, then it would be similar to the cores of other terrestrial planets such as Earth.

Since the core is deep within a planet’s mantle and crust, it cannot be studied directly. Through the Psyche mission, NASA is hoping to analyze the asteroid’s topography and composition. The space agency believes this will provide an idea of how terrestrial planets are created.

For the mission, NASA has partnered with the Arizona State University to spearhead the project. The space agency will also collaborate with Maxar Technologies for the development of the solar-electric propulsion chassis that will be used for the spacecraft.

According to the timetable set by NASA, the mission to Psyche will launch sometime in 2022. The spacecraft that will be used is expected to pass by Mars in 2023. NASA is hoping to reach the asteroid in 2026. Before the spacecraft lands on Psyche, it will first spend 21 months in orbit around the asteroid to map out its exterior features.

Psyche Artist Concept
Artist concept of the Psyche spacecraft, which will conduct a direct exploration of an asteroid thought to be a stripped planetary core. NASA/JPL-Caltech
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