Amid new administration, NASA initiates two new space missions

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons Used as a backdrop for information about the NASA Discovery Programs, this artwork shows a rendering of planets and asteroids similar to those that Lucy and Psyche, two new NASA exploratory space missions, will explore.

Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
Used as a backdrop for information about the NASA Discovery Programs, this artwork shows a rendering of planets and asteroids similar to those that Lucy and Psyche, two new NASA exploratory space missions, will explore.

BY HALEY LUCIAN ’17

On Jan. 4, 2017, NASA announced two new exploratory space missions, Lucy and Psyche. The goal of these two missions is to shed light on the period of time after the sun's birth. Each mission is estimated to cost roughly 450 million, which – according to NASA – is relatively inexpensive. The Lucy spacecraft will be launched in 2021 and will travel to Jupiter's Trojan asteroids that orbit with Jupiter around the sun. The Psyche spacecraft will follow in 2023 to explore a metal asteroid that, NASA said, has not been previously visited. 

According to NASA, Lucy already has a detailed plan for arrival and exit. In 2025, the spacecraft will arrive on one of the main target asteroids where it will remain for two years. From 2027 to 2033, Lucy will survey six different Trojan asteroids. The decision to explore these asteroids was in part based on their unique nature and likely early origins. The Trojan asteroids were first discovered in 1906 and not long after it was discovered that they are pulled in by Jupiter's gravity in two separate groups, one leading and one trailing the large planet. It is thought that formation of these asteroids occurred further away than Jupiter's orbit, suggesting an earlier origin according to NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory.  

The Psyche spacecraft will also explore the main asteroid belt but its mission has a more specific target, a metal asteroid, appropriately, named 16 Psyche. The 16 Psyche asteroid is comprised mostly of metallic iron and nickel, similar to, NASA notes, the Earth's core. This metal composition is in stark contrast to the typical rocky and icy nature of asteroids, suggesting 16 Psyche may have early planetary origins. 

However, these initiatives began just three weeks ago, prior to the recent change in White House administration. A new administration can translate to new initiatives in any area of American government, including NASA. Likewise old initiatives may also be found on the chopping block. According to the Washington Post, NASA is currently in flux. On Jan. 20, the administrator of NASA, Major General Charles Frank Bolden, Jr. retired. An interim replacement was assigned, leaving many to wonder how NASA might change under President Trump's administration. 

NASA had a budget greater than $18 billion in 2016, a figure that by most experts' accounts is expected to rise with increasing interest in space exploration. With more than 17,000 employees, a considerable amount of them at NASA are now wondering how their specific work might change. As the Washington Post reports, President Trump has hardly spoken about the United States' space program or NASA related issues making it difficult to assess his stance when it comes to NASA funding and the planned Lucy and Psyche missions. An Atlantic article published shortly before the announcement of the Lucy and Psyche missions claimed that not all of NASA should have to worry. Divisions of NASA that focus on the study of climate change may be in the most peril while deep space missions may be favored. The article cited an October op-ed piece written by Trump campaign advisors, which stated, ™NASA should be focused primarily on deep-space activities rather than Earth-centric work that is better handled by other agencies.∫ This particular op-ed suggests at least that missions like Lucy and Psyche would be favored by a Trump administration. For now, time will tell, but hopefully we can all look forward to seeing Lucy in the sky in the near future. 

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