NASA has been planning and waiting for years to launch a new spacecraft to explore the bizarrely metal-rich asteroid Psyche. After a delay of a full year, a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket may finally loft the craft to space as soon as Oct. 5.
A software glitch caused launch delays in 2022, forcing mission planners to wait until this year, after the launch window expired last October.
The asteroid target is officially named 16 Psyche. It's shaped like a potato, with a diameter of 173 miles (280 kilometers) at its widest point. The exact composition of the asteroid is a subject of some debate, but NASA says it may be up to 60% iron-nickel metals. This is such an unusually high proportion that some scientists speculate Psyche may be a leftover chunk from an ancient planet's core.
NASA has no plans to mine the asteroid, but data returned by the mission could help us get a more accurate idea of its potential value. Some estimates have put the figure as high as a mind-blowing 10,000 quadrillion dollars.
NASA and other scientists connected to the mission say they're more interested in using the trip to Psyche to learn about what Earth's core might be like, since it's so close yet so inaccessible.
Psyche isn't a near-Earth asteroid. It orbits far away, between Mars and Jupiter, and it'll take the Psyche spacecraft six years to travel the 2.5 billion miles (4 billion kilometers) it needs to cover to reach its heavy metal target.
Along the way, the spacecraft will be testing advanced laser communications technology in deep space for the first time. The optical communications system could be capable of data transmission rates 10 to 100 times higher than current radio systems, perhaps even enabling streaming video. The experiment could lay the foundation for a future interplanetary broadband network when astronauts venture to Mars.
As of last week, NASA said the Psyche spacecraft had completed testing and is fully fueled and ready to launch. The agency and SpaceX are targeting a launch at 10:34 a.m. EDT (7:34 a.m. PDT) on Thursday, Oct. 5, from Kennedy Space Center in Florida. In case of other delays, there are other opportunities for launch in the current window up until Oct. 25.
The launch will be streamed by NASA and SpaceX.