WASHINGTON: NASA on Friday launched a spacecraft from Florida on its way to Psyche, the largest of the several metal-rich asteroids known in our solar system and believed by scientists to be the remnant core of an ancient protoplanet, offering clues about Earth’s formation.

The Psyche probe, folded inside the cargo bay of a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket, blasted off under partly cloudy skies from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Cape Canaveral on a planned journey 2.2 billion miles (3.5 billion km) through space. The spacecraft, roughly the size of a small van, is due to reach the asteroid in August 2029.

The launch, shown live on NASA TV, marks the latest in a series of recent NASA missions seeking insights about the origins of our planet about 4.5 billion years ago by sending robotic spacecraft to explore asteroids - primordial relics from the dawn of the solar system.

Asteroid Psyche measures roughly 173 miles (279 km) across at its widest point and resides on the outer fringes of the main asteroid belt between the planets Mars and Jupiter.

Cargo-faring panels enclosing the spacecraft inside the nose of the rocket’s upper stage were jettisoned about five minutes after launch, and the probe itself was released into space about an hour later. NASA has said the process for the spacecraft to autonomously unfurl its twin solar panels and to point its communications antennae toward Earth takes around two hours.

Mission controllers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) near Los Angeles confirmed detection of the probe’s first radio signals shortly after it was seen on live video floating free from the rocket.

The JPL team plans to spend the next three to four months conducting checks of the spacecraft’s systems before sending it on its deep space journey, propelled by solar-electric ion thrusters being used for the first time on an interplanetary mission.

After reaching the asteroid, the spacecraft would then orbit it for 26 months, scanning Psyche with instruments built to measure its gravity, magnetic proprieties and composition.

According to the leading hypothesis, the asteroid is the once-molten, long-frozen inner hulk of a baby planet torn apart by collisions with other celestial bodies in the early solar system. It orbits the sun about three times farther than Earth, even at its closest to our planet.

‘Outer space to explore inner space’

The first asteroid of its kind chosen for study at close range by spacecraft, Psyche is believed to consist largely of iron, nickel, gold and other metals, with a collective hypothetical monetary value placed at 10 quadrillion dollars.

But the mission has nothing to do with space mining, according to scientists. Its objective is to gain greater understanding of the formation of Earth and other rocky planets that are built around cores of molten metal. Earth’s molten center is too deep and too hot to ever be examined directly.


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