• NASA awarded a new spaceflight contract to SpaceX
  • The Falcon Heavy rocket will launch NASA's Psyche mission
  • The new mission will study a metallic asteroid

NASA has awarded a new contract to commercial spaceflight provider SpaceX. The new deal involves using the company’s Falcon Heavy rocket to launch NASA’s mission to the massive metallic asteroid known as Psyche.

NASA finalized its latest deal with SpaceX on Feb. 28. The entire contract is valued at $117 million, which includes costs for the launch and other mission-related expenses, SpaceNews reported.

Psyche is a giant metallic asteroid with an estimated diameter of about 140 miles. It orbits the plane between Mars and Jupiter while maintaining a distance of 235 million to 309 million miles from the Sun.

Unlike most known asteroids in the Solar System, which are mainly composed of rocks and ice, Psyche is an M-type cosmic body, which means it has a metallic composition. According to NASA, the massive asteroid is composed mostly of nickel and metallic iron, which are the same elements that make up Earth’s core.

Psyche’s unique structure is the reason why it has been targeted by NASA for a future mission. This expedition was selected by NASA in 2017 as part of its Discovery program.

For the mission, SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy rocket will launch from the Kennedy Space Center in July 2022 carrying NASA’s spacecraft. Sometime in 2023, the spacecraft will pass by Mars and use its gravitational pull to slingshot itself deeper into space.

NASA expects the mission to reach Psyche in early 2026. It will orbit the asteroid to study its unique characteristics.

According to NASA, the goal of the mission is to gain a deeper understanding of the metallic asteroid’s characteristics and its relation to planetary formation. Since the asteroid is composed of the same kind of materials found in the cores of planets, scientists believe that Psyche could be a remnant of a world that was destroyed by a violent cosmic collision.

NASA believes that studying Psyche would provide detailed information about the formation of planets.

“Deep within rocky, terrestrial planets - including Earth - scientists infer the presence of metallic cores, but these lie unreachably far below the planets' rocky mantles and crusts,” the agency stated.

“Because we cannot see or measure Earth's core directly, Psyche offers a unique window into the violent history of collisions and accretion that created terrestrial planets,” NASA continued.

An artist's impression of the asteroid Psyche, located in the outer fringes of the main asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter. It is the only known body in the solar system that is almost entirely metallic. NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin