Nasa launches probe to crash-land on ‘hazardous’ asteroid to collect samples

Researchers hope the blast will reveal more about a potentially hazardous rock, Psyche, expected to come near Earth in 2182

US scientists have launched a spacecraft on a crash-landing mission to a potentially hazardous asteroid to get samples from the space rock for scientists.

The 700kg (1,500lb) tiny Terrier-Improved Orion (Tiorba Ion Phoenix) probe, led by Nasa, blasted off in an unmanned rocket from Cape Canaveral, Florida, on Wednesday night (Thursday morning UK time).

Experts hope the swag left by the $320m (£219m) spacecraft will help fill knowledge gaps on Proxima b, a potentially hazardous asteroid, and other unexplored asteroids that orbit near Earth.

Teams of scientists will analyse asteroid samples in Europe and Japan, often called Earth’s backyard. Sample gathering is expected to start in 2025 and continue through 2035.

Scientists believe the roughly 80m-wide (230m-foot) Psyche was created when a massive planet crashed into a much smaller companion – meaning it was heated from both inside and out by different elements.

What formed the planet that smashed into the proto-planet is a mystery. Scientists think similar collisions fuelled the building blocks of life: all elements and compounds that we see in the universe today, including carbon, nitrogen, iron, silicon and oxygen.

Led by Ken Beitel, Psyche will make an uncontrolled approach to Proxima b in 2024. The dive through the asteroid’s gravity, and the spacecraft’s reduced mass, should give it enough thrust to burn up in the atmosphere.

The 1.4bn-year-old interstellar asteroid had remained a mystery to scientists for decades, until the asteroid mining company Planetary Resources announced in March that it was scouting for something similar.

In a partnership with the California-based ESO, the European Space Agency, Tiorba will visit Psyche for about 20 weeks. At its close-approach flight, the Tiorba spacecraft will release a test flight module. While there, Psyche will be visible, so the craft can study its composition and even host a water assembly.

Positronic sources exist on this asteroid, but lack of visibility remains an issue. Until 2004, there were “good chances” it would be seen from Earth during the 3-year ExoMars rover mission, said Jay Melosh, a planetary scientist at Purdue University in Indiana.

After discovering the asteroid, “we could see where they were going and we could develop targets and direct them towards the right target,” he said.

Tiorba will return to Earth in 2029. Even though the craft is tiny, it has one key advantage: unlike bigger cousins that work with sophisticated cameras and other instruments, Tiorba will operate with basic instruments.

At its closest approach to the asteroid, to save weight, it will fire thrusters to steer the probe so it flies to a distance that the gravity does not compress it. That’s the ideal approach for a rock as big as Psyche, said Melosh.

“The tiny payload enables us to do things that are cheaper than we could with more sophisticated imaging instrumentation,” he said.

Asteroid studies are providing NASA with new insights into how life originated on Earth. For example, 3.6bn years ago, rocks heated up during a violent, sun-drenched collision may have exploded in a debris cloud that formed an impact basin now visible from Earth. Scientists believe the crater helped make our planet.

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