BLOOMSBURG—Understanding the origins of our solar system will be the focus of a NASA mission, and a professor from Bloomsburg University has contributed his research to the project.
Michael Shepard, Ph.D., professor of environmental, geographical and geological sciences (EGGS), studied 16 Psyche, an asteroid selected for the mission that has potential to open new windows on one of the earliest eras in the history of our solar system.
Only the 16th minor planet discovered — hence its formal designation, 16 Psyche — is an asteroid located between Mars and Jupiter. Discovered in 1852 by Italian astronomer Annibale de Gasparis, the asteroid’s name comes from the Greek mythological figure Psyche.
Shepard investigated the asteroid and developed the 3D model the spacecraft’s mission team is using.
“It’s exciting to contribute to a NASA mission,” said Shepard. 16 Psyche was one of two missions selected from five finalists for funding by NASA.
Using radar signals at the Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico, Shepard and other scientists were able to define the shape and size of the asteroid. Based on the signals, they calculated that 16 Psyche is about 150 miles wide in diameter, making it one of the largest metallic asteroids in the main belt. Shepard used this information to create a 3D model of 16 Psyche that describes the topography of the asteroid, which NASA is using. The scientific journal Icarus published the model.
Asteroids are comprised mainly of rock, but 16 Psyche is unique because it is made almost entirely out of nickel-iron metal. Since this asteroid is metallic, similar to most planet’s cores, some theorize that it might have been a planet destroyed in early collisions, according to Shepard.
Looking at this asteroid will provide a look into how planets may have formed as well as a window into the history of early solar system collisions. The mission will also help scientists understand how planets and other bodies separated into their layers – including cores, mantles and crusts. 16 Psyche is also the only place where scientists can directly study a metallic core that usually is found far below the mantles and crusts of planets. “We’ve never seen anything like this. It’s thought to have formed the first piece of the solar system,” said Shepard.
The mission, now in the formation stage, will launch in 2023, arriving at the asteroid in 2030. Scientists believe the mission will provide insight on how planets like Earth may have formed.
Alongside 16 Psyche, the other NASA-funded mission is called Lucy. Lucy, a robotic spacecraft, will visit the Trojan asteroids outside Jupiter. Both missions will explore the history of the early solar system.
Shepard, professor and department chair of environmental, geographical and geological sciences, has been teaching at Bloomsburg since 1995. He earned a B.S. in Physics from Vanderbilt University in 1984. He earned a Ph.D. in Earth and Planetary Science from Washington University in 1994.
Bloomsburg University is one of 14 universities in Pennsylvania’s State System of Higher Education. The university serves approximately 9,600 students, offering comprehensive programs of study in the colleges of Education, Business, Liberal Arts and Science and Technology.