NASA’s Big Plans to Explore Small Bodies

by | Oct 23, 2020 | Asteroids, Bennu Mappers, Daily Space | 0 comments

IMAGE: This artist’s illustration of Bennu and other asteroids represent building blocks of our solar system’s rocky planets. CREDIT: NASA

The planetary science news cycle was heavily dominated by OSIRIS-REx and the touch-and-go sample performed earlier this week. Everyone has been talking about the mission, and with all our personal involvement in the science (so many rocks), CosmoQuest has done more than its fair share of covering Bennu.

So what’s next? Well, we are definitely going to wait for the moment of inertia measurement OSIRIS-REx will perform as it determines just how much sample it picked up. That will determine whether or not the team has to collect more material from another sampling site. Once all that is sorted out, we have to wait until early next year for the spacecraft to head for home. And after that, we have the long wait until September 2023 for the physical sample return.

All that time doesn’t even take into account performing actual science on the sample by all the agencies that get a piece of it!

In the meantime, and I know Dr. Pamela is rolling her eyes as she hears me say these words, there are three more asteroid missions to look forward to. The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) and Lucy missions will launch in July and October 2021, respectively, and the Psyche mission has a 2022 launch date.

IMAGE: Schematic of the DART mission shows the impact on the moonlet of asteroid (65803) Didymos. Post-impact observations from Earth-based optical telescopes and planetary radar would, in turn, measure the change in the moonlet’s orbit about the parent body. CREDIT: NASA/Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab

DART is a first of its kind mission to test out a possible planetary defense option. I don’t mean something to keep the aliens at bay. Sorry, Space Force. I’m talking about keeping the asteroids at bay. We’ve had a lot of close flybys so far this year, and I’ve gotten to report on most of them. DART would make those flybys possibly less scary.

As NASA says, “DART will be the first demonstration of the kinetic impactor technique to change the motion of an asteroid in space. The target is the Didymos binary asteroid system consisting of the larger Didymos and its smaller ‘moonlet’ Dimorphos, with diameters of ~780 and 160 m, respectively. The spacecraft will hit Dimorphos with an almost head-on impact in September 2022 that will change the speed and path of Dimorphos.”

Don’t worry. There is no potential for causing either of these bodies to threaten Earth.

A whole bunch of agencies are participating in this mission, both to take images of the potential ejecta from the impact with a CubeSat and to measure any change in the orbit of the moonlet using ground-based telescopes. Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory leads the mission for NASA.

IMAGE: This diagram illustrates Lucy’s orbital path. The spacecraft’s path (green) is shown in a frame of reference where Jupiter remains stationary, giving the trajectory its pretzel-like shape. CREDIT: Southwest Research Institute

After DART comes Lucy. We’ve talked about Lucy on the Daily Space before. Here’s a quick refresher from NASA: “Lucy will take a 12-year journey to survey the diversity of one main-belt asteroid and seven Trojan asteroids—asteroids ensnared in Jupiter’s orbit—believed to be remnants of the same material that formed the outer planets. The instrument suite aboard Lucy will characterize surface geology, surface color and composition, interior and bulk properties, in addition to satellites and rings of each asteroid.”

The mission is led by the Southwest Research Institute and seeks to give us insight into planetary formation processes. I would not be surprised if the results upend some way of thinking about our solar system and how it formed. That seems to happen regularly now.

IMAGE: This artist’s-concept illustration depicts the spacecraft of NASA’s Psyche mission near the mission’s target, the metal asteroid Psyche. The artwork was created in May 2017 to show the five-panel solar arrays planned for the spacecraft. CREDIT: NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin

Last but definitely not least is the Psyche mission. Asteroid Psyche 16 is a metal asteroid that scientists think could be the “unreachable” core of a formerly large terrestrial body similar to Earth. Per NASA: The mission’s instruments will not only characterize topography but will help scientists determine if Psyche 16 is truly a proto-planet’s core or if it is unmolten material. They will also be able to conclude relative ages of regions of the asteroid’s surface and determine if small metal bodies contain similar light elements expected in the high-pressure cores of terrestrial planets.

Personally, I’m intrigued by the idea that Psyche was the center of another planet that broke up where the asteroid belt is. Growing up, I always wondered if the asteroid belt was the remains of a planet that Jupiter pulled apart. While that concept is mostly science fiction with Jupiter likely not having allowed anything in that region to coalesce into a planet in the first place, perhaps Psyche will change the theory once again.

More Information

NASA article 


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