Astronomers say Arizona becoming hub for asteroid exploration

Arizona State University’s (ASU) School of Earth and Space Exploration put in a bid for the school to lead a NASA mission.

NASA chose ASU to lead the $450-million Discovery mission to the metallic asteroid Psyche. ASU will also build a critical instrument for the robotic spacecraft and has a role in a second NASA mission announced last week.

The achievement of landing a NASA mission on ASU’s first application is extremely rare.“It’s kind of outrageous,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, Director of the School of Earth and Space Exploration. She noted she has been personally working on the science behind the mission for more than five years. Elkins-Tanton has previously been working as Director of a school that serves as mission control for two NASA space-based instruments.

On the day of the announcement, Elkins-Tanton wrote “We worked a paltry five and a half years. Other teams have gone through this process twice, three times.” Arizona will become a hub for space and asteroid exploration with the Psyche mission.

The Discovery program is a competition for “small” missions, capped at $450 million. Finalists for the current round of awards included two missions to Venus. A bid to launch an infrared space telescope to look for near-Earth objects was also a finalist. Although not selected, NASA continued funding for further development of the telescope. A NASA official congratulated the group of asteroid and comet researchers from across the country.

Additional NASA projects working in collaboration

In addition to Psyche, NASA selected the Lucy mission. Lucy provides the first close look at six “Trojan” asteroids. These asteroids are caught in Jupiter’s orbit, leading or following the giant planet in its orbit around the sun.

Jim Green, director of NASA’s Planetary Science Division, said NASA has not shifted its emphasis in its competed programs from planets to asteroids and comets. Green said the growth of small-bodies research is part of an evolution in thinking. Research into solar system formation began in Northern Arizona in the 1960s. Arizona began the research into how small bodies created our solar system, Green said.

The Psyche mission, scheduled to launch in 2023 will reach its target by 2030. Psyche, about 130 miles in diameter, resides in the main asteroid belt. The asteroid is about three times Earth’s distance from the sun.

The Psyche spacecraft will orbit its target for a year, using an array of instruments, including a multi-spectral imager being built by an ASU team, to determine the composition of Psyche, believed to be the iron-nickel core of a once-forming planet.

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