(NEXSTAR) — NASA’s Psyche mission launched aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket Friday morning to start a nearly six-year mission to a “metal-rich” asteroid.
The mission namesake is also the target: Asteroid 16 Psyche. While NASA has conducted a number of asteroid-related missions, including the recent return of its first asteroid samples, this will be the agency’s first mission to an asteroid which they believe has more metal than rock or ice.
While there won’t be a return trip for the Psyche spacecraft, scientists hope to confirm a theory from afar. They hypothesize the asteroid, which is 173 miles in diameter at its widest point, could actually be the leftover core of a planetesimal, or very small planet. If confirmed, the study of 16 Psyche could offer a look at what might be Earth’s own center and how our planet was created.
Nexstar Media livestreamed the launch within this story. Watch the launch and landing of the side boosters in the video clip above.
The current mission timeline aims to put NASA’s craft into orbit around the asteroid in late July 2029. At that point the actual mission will begin: two years of photo taking, surface mapping, and data collection to determine Psyche’s composition.
Here is a bit more about the asteroid as written by NASA:
Psyche was discovered in 1852 by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis. Because it was the 16th asteroid to be discovered, it is sometimes referred to as 16 Psyche. It’s named for the goddess of the soul in ancient Greek mythology, often depicted as a butterfly-winged female figure.
Psyche orbits the Sun in the outer part of the main asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. It is approximately three times farther from the Sun than Earth. Because Psyche and Earth orbit at different speeds, the distance from Earth to Psyche varies from less than 186 million miles to more than 372 million miles.
Psyche is dense, estimated at about 212 to 256 pounds per cubic foot (3,400 to 4,100 kilograms per cubic meter). The surface gravity on Psyche is much less than it is on Earth – even less than it is on Earth’s Moon. On Psyche, lifting a car would feel like lifting a large dog.