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Lucy and Psyche
Artist’s conceptions show the Lucy probe visiting a rocky asteroid at left, and the Psyche probe visiting a metallic asteroid at right. (NASA Illustrations)

Today is a great day for asteroid miners: NASA announced that it will provide full funding under its Discovery Program for two missions focusing on different types of asteroids.

A mission called Lucy will launch in 2021 to study a smorgasbord of asteroids, including one in the main asteroid belt, between Mars and Jupiter, plus six others among the swarms of space rocks caught in Jupiter’s orbit.

Another mission called Psyche will take off in 2022 to visit a type of asteroid that’s never been seen up close before: a huge metallic object called 16 Psyche that’s similar in composition to Earth’s core.

“This is what Discovery Program missions are all about – boldly going to places we’ve never been to enable groundbreaking science,” Thomas Zurbuchen, associate administrator for NASA Headquarters’ Science Mission Directorate, said today in a news release.

NASA will also provide another year of funding for the Near Earth Object Camera, or NEOCam, which is designed to look for potentially hazardous asteroids in the region of space closest to Earth’s orbit.

Discovery Program missions are relatively low-cost space science efforts, capped at a cost of about $450 million. Previously selected Discovery missions include the Messenger probe to Mercury; the Dawn probe to the asteroids Vesta and Ceres; and the InSight lander, which is due to begin its trip to Mars next year.

Lucy, Psyche and NEOCam were among five finalists that had been under consideration for full Discovery Program funding for more than a year. Two missions to Venus – known as DAVINCI and VERITAS – lost out in this round but could be reconsidered in the future.

“It would be wonderful if we could have selected more than two, but obviously we’re delighted with the selections,” said Jim Green, NASA’s planetary science director.

Psyche: Potential target for asteroid miners

The Psyche mission will be going to a one-of-a-kind object in the main asteroid belt: A 130-mile-wide chunk of material thought to consist mostly of metallic iron and nickel. Scientists have suggested that the asteroid 16 Psyche could be the exposed core of a primordial Mars-sized planet that lost its outer rocky layers in a series of collisions billions of years ago.

The mission schedule calls for launch in 2022, a Mars gravity-assist maneuver in 2023, and arrival at the asteroid in 2026. The robotic probe will study Psyche’s composition, magnetic field and mass distribution over the course of a two-year science campaign.

“This is an opportunity to explore a new type of world  – not one of rock or ice, but of metal,” the mission’s principal investigator, Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University, said in a statement. “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. We learn about inner space by visiting outer space.”

Psyche is also intriguing to asteroid miners, because insights into the composition of metal-bearing space objects could point the way toward techniques for making use of those resources.

“I think the most important things we’re going to discover are: What are the surface conditions of a metal asteroid like? What might the landing challenges be? … If we go there and we discover that it’s easily mineable and it has mineral resources that can be converted to water, then Psyche could be the perfect stepping stone to the outer solar system,” Elkins-Tanton told GeekWire.

One of the leaders in the asteroid-mining field is Planetary Resources, a company headquartered in Redmond, Wash. Planetary Resources’ president and CEO, Chris Lewicki, welcomed word of the newly selected missions in a statement emailed to GeekWire:

“Planetary Resources is excited that NASA has selected the Lucy and Psyche missions for the Discovery program. While the particular asteroids targeted for study under these missions are not near-term resource targets, understanding the science behind their history and evolution will contribute to the body of knowledge about these important members in the solar system family and the valuable materials they contain.

“With some half-dozen active space missions now in service, on their way, or under development to study asteroids, we’re pleased to be developing our own mission to harness water and metals from asteroids and open up the space economy enabling the permanent presence of humans beyond Earth.”

Lucy: Fossils of planet formation

Lucy is due for launch in October 2021, and would reach its first destination in the main belt in 2025. The probe would move on to study the six Jupiter Trojan asteroids between 2027 and 2033.

Trojans are thought to be remnants of the early solar system that were gravitationally captured at balance points in Jupiter’s orbit.

“These small bodies really are the fossils of planet formation, and that’s why we named Lucy after the human ancestor,” said the mission’s principal investigator, Harold Levison of the Southwest Research Institute.

Lucy’s target in the main asteroid belt has been named Donaldjohanson, as a nod to the paleontologist who discovered the famous 3.2 million-year-old fossil in 1974. Other targets include the Trojan asteroid Eurybates – and Levison’s personal favorite, the binary Trojan known as Patroclus-Menoetius.

Both Lucy and Psyche have the primary scientific objective of unraveling the origins and evolution of the solar system.

“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,” NASA’s Green said.

Update for 3:15 p.m. PT May 24: This report was updated with NASA’s decision to launch the mission in 2022 rather than 2023.

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