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NASA Fast-tracks 'Psyche' Mission to Explore a Metal Asteroid

May 26, 2017 09:32 AM EDT

NASA will soon explore a metal asteroid up close. Reports say that the agency is fast-tracking its Psyche mission by moving the launch up one year.

The mission will be launched in 2023 and will rendezvous with the main belt asteroid in 2026 -- four years ahead of the original plan. This means scientists will get to study metal asteroids sooner than expected.

"We challenged the mission design team to explore if an earlier launch date could provide a more efficient trajectory to the asteroid Psyche, and they came through in a big way," Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters in Washington said in a statement. "This will enable us to fulfill our science objectives sooner and at a reduced cost."

There is a window for programs to launch earlier in 2021 or 2023. Lucy will launch in 2021 while Psyche, the mission tasks to explore a metal asteroid, will follow by 2023. The selection that helped fast-track the mission was done in January this year. The plan is to explore the metal asteroid called 16 Psyche.

"The biggest advantage is the excellent trajectory, which gets us there about twice as fast and is more cost effective," Principal Investigator Lindy Elkins-Tanton of Arizona State University in Tempe said in a statement. "We are all extremely excited that NASA was able to accommodate this earlier launch date. The world will see this amazing metal world so much sooner."

The earlier launch will help pave way for a revised trajectory believed to be more efficient without the need for Earth's gravity assist. Instead of the planet's gravity, the mission will use Mars gravity assist. This drastically shortens travel time, therefore, allowing the probe to start four years in advance. The revised trajectory will also bring the probe farther away from the sun eliminating the greater need for heat proofing.

"The change in plans is a great boost for the team and the mission," Psyche Project Manager Henry Stone at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California. "Our mission design team did a fantastic job coming up with this ideal launch opportunity."

Space Systems Loral (SSL) is building the Psyche spacecraft for the probe. One major feature is the increased and redesigned high-powered solar array panels that will help the spacecraft move in a faster speed.

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