In 2011, Lindy Elkins-Tanton and several colleagues wrote a paper exploring the idea of ​​tiny planets called asteroids that might have formed billions of years ago, and speculate on whether their remnants might still be orbiting in the asteroid belt. She was later found by officials at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, California. “Do you want to propose a task to test your hypothesis?” they asked. “My answer is, ‘What?‘ Because I never thought of doing it,” she said. But 11 years later, her work has led to a new asteroid vehicle that’s heading to the launch pad.

Elkins-Tanton, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University in Phoenix, now leads NASA’s new Psyche mission — named after the probe and the asteroid, which itself is named after the Greek goddess of the soul. The probe will visit the asteroid to study its composition and figure out how it formed, looking for clues about how the solar system’s rocky planets themselves might have assembled. Engineers completed testing of the Psyche spacecraft at JPL this week and transported it by truck and plane to Cape Canaveral, Florida, where it arrived Friday. There, the team will mount it and its solar panels on a SpaceX Falcon Heavy rocket and prepare for its launch scheduled for Aug. 1.

The spacecraft took more than a year to build in the High Bay 1 cleanroom within the Jet Propulsion Laboratory’s Spacecraft Assembly Facility, where Elkins-Tanton and her team have been adjusting and testing their instruments, including The spacecraft is subjected to rigorous electromagnetic, thermal vacuum, vibration, shock and acoustic testing to ensure it can withstand the harsh vibrations of launch. The room is designed to ensure that no dust or fingerprints interfere with the functioning of sensitive instruments, and no earthly contaminants end up being transported to other worlds. To enter the room, one must put on a sterile “rabbit suit” that includes hair and shoe covers, overalls, and gloves, then walk through sticky floor mats that hold loose dirt, and then through a phone booth-sized room with air jets Blows away any extra particles that may be hiding on clothing.

The probe is boxy, about the size of a car, and is topped with a large dish of high-gain antennas for sending and receiving signals from your home. Those tests were still in progress when WIRED visited the cleanroom in April. Several pillars and a sign that reads “Psyche: A Journey into the Metal World” keep visitors at a distance from the black and gray ship, and a technician is working on a tubular transceiver at the bottom. Holes can be seen along the sides, and two arrays will be attached later, each consisting of four solar panels. The bulk of Psyche will be flown in an environmentally controlled container, flying directly to Cape Canaveral in a spherical C-17 transport aircraft, but the solar panel packs will be shipped separately and will be rejoined the spaceflight closer to launch device.

Asteroid Psyche is a unique target. It’s a 140-mile-wide potato-shaped object made mostly of metal, rather than rock and ice, orbiting the sun between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter. “It’s the largest metallic asteroid in the solar system. We don’t know how it is,” said astronomer Juan Sanchez of the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, who has studied extensively on Earth Birth and evolution to the present. Mission.

This composition means that Psyche may not be just a world with a unique combination of metals — it may be part of a baby planet’s core, after massive impacts with other asteroids shattered its outer layers in the solar system’s turbulent early days Left. In fact, if Psyche was the core of an asteroid, it might resemble the metallic guts of rocky planets that exist today. “It would be cool to see a core. We can’t go to the core of Earth — beyond science fiction — so this is our opportunity to study the inside of these objects,” said astronomer Vishnu Reddy of the University of Arizona in Tucson, who has worked on Other asteroid missions, but not Spirit.