• Solar System

Psyche: Journey to the Great Metal Asteroid

Published on 10 October 2023

A SpaceX Falcon Heavy has launched the Psyche mission to a metallic asteroid. This heavenly body could be the core of an ancient planet in formation.

Psyche: Journey to the Great Metal Asteroid

The Psyche mission is targeting an M-type asteroid which could be the core of a protoplanet. It will travel more than 3.5 billion km to reach its orbit. It will be carrying scientific instruments which should allow us to better understand how rocky planets were formed. It will also test a laser data transmission system during its transit.



Successful launch of the Psyche probe from Florida with a SpaceX Falcon Heavy launcher.

Below the video, check out the rest of the article.

Recording of the NASA TV live broadcast on October 13 on the launch of the Psyche probe.


The asteroid Psyche is of particular interest to NASA because it in itself contains 1% of the total mass of the asteroid belt. But it is also the most massive metallic (M-type) asteroid we know in the solar system. With a diameter of approximately 200 km, it is made up of almost 50% metal.


It could be a remnant of the ferrous core of a forming planet. The hypothesis favoured by scientists is that the crust and mantle of this protoplanet were torn off following a violent collision with another object. The objective of the mission is therefore to see if Psyche can help us better understand the process of planet formation. This is an opportunity to directly study a core of iron and nickel, similar to that of terrestrial planets like the Earth.

On July 25, technicians at Astrotech Space Operations near the Kennedy Space Center began retracting one of the two solar panels attached to the Psyche spacecraft.

@NASA/Kim Shiflett


A five and a half year journey awaits this probe to the asteroid Psyche. Aboard a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, this solar system exploration mission will use Hall-effect propulsion. An electric field accelerates ions and generates thrust, providing a much more efficient propulsion system than conventional propellant engines.


To produce the necessary energy, the Psyche probe is equipped with 75 m² of cross-shaped solar panels which mean that it will still generate 2.4W at nearly 500 million km, the farthest point of the mission. The machine will also take advantage of the gravitational assistance of Mars during its flight in May 2026.

The probe should go into orbit around Psyche in August 2029 for the start of its scientific mission which should last 21 months.

Solar Panels So Far from the Sun?

  1. In 2016, the Juno probe, orbiting Jupiter, broke the distance record for a spacecraft equipped with solar generators (more than 816 million km from the Sun).
  2. Before it, the record was held by the Rosetta probe, from the European Space Agency, in orbit around comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko, located 792 million kilometres from the Sun.
  3. The ESA Juice probe, which left on April 14, 2023 for the icy moons of Jupiter, is equipped with 85 m² of solar panels.
  4. The American Europa Clipper, which is due to leave in the autumn of 2024 for Jupiter’s moon, Europa, will include a surface area of ​​102 m² of photovoltaic cells to provide its propulsion.

In particular, the mission will seek to understand whether Psyche’s outer mantle was torn off during a collision.

@Artist’s impression, NASA



  1. PMI: a multispectral imager composed of two cameras with eight filters. They will be used in particular to draw up a topographic map of the surface, detect the proportions of silicates and metals and understand the formation and age of craters on the surface.
  2. A spectrometer to detect gamma rays and neutrons produced when the surface of Psyche is bombarded by cosmic rays.
  3. A magnetometer to measure the asteroid’s magnetic field.


During transit, the Psyche probe will also test laser communication technology (DSOC: Deep Space Orbital Communication). It should be noted that the communication rate decreases very sharply as a probe moves away from the Earth and that the volume of data to be transmitted tends to increase. Equipped with a 4W laser (the FLT: Flight Laser Transceiver), the Psyche probe should be capable of transmitting 200gb per second when close to Earth and 0.2kb per second at 330 million km. The objective is to increase the throughput between ten and a hundred times compared to on-board radio frequency systems.


Update: 11/20/2023

On November 14, for the first time, data was transmitted by laser from a point in the solar system further away than the Moon. Psyche, at 16 million km from Earth – or forty times the Earth-Moon distance, managed to send data to the Palomar Observatory in California. For this test, the photons emitted by the laser took fifty seconds to travel from the probe to Earth. At its furthest distance, the laser light will take up to twenty minutes to communicate with Psyche. During all this time, the probe, like the Earth, will have moved, which will require adjusting the laser so communication is not interrupted.

Laser communication will allow a volume of data to be transferred much more quickly than by radio waves.




As soon as the mission to 16 Psyche was announced, the craziest figures circulated about the amount the asteroid could be worth. Its iron, its nickel as well as its gold would be valued at $10,000 trillion according to Forbes magazine. Enough to arouse cupidity and even make everyone on Earth a billionaire. In reality, we are not very far from being able to exploit this resource.

NASA Is Going There For Science

The Psyche mission seeks to understand the composition of the asteroid to better understand the formation of our solar system. There is no sample return planned, far less mining this metallic asteroid.

A Vague Legal Framework

The Space Treaty signed in 1967 prohibits the appropriation of celestial bodies by States. The question of the planet’s resources is much more vague and is the subject of debate. The “Space Act” signed by the Obama administration in 2014 specifically authorises private companies to engage in space exploitation, but the subject remains controversial. Luxembourg and the United Arab Emirates, for their part, have adopted texts to attract investments in this sector in their countries.

An Astronomical Cost

To date it is difficult to imagine a viable economic model for the exploitation of a heavenly body like Psyche. For example, the recent Osiris Rex mission, which cost $900 million, brought back only 200g of samples from the asteroid Bennu. While companies have launched into this niche market, many have already disappeared. For the moment, the cost of operating such a mission would still exceed the amount of revenue generated.

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