A US$1.2-billion NASA spacecraft launched from Florida today on a 3.6-billion-kilometre journey to a metal-rich asteroid that is unlike anything scientists have studied before.

Its destination is a space rock called Psyche — the largest metallic object in the Solar System. Scientists think this asteroid could be the core of a planet that never finished forming. If so, then studying Psyche will be like getting a time traveller’s look at how the Solar System’s planets formed billions of years ago.

Researchers aren’t completely sure how much of Psyche is metallic, but according to their measurements, “at least part of the surface has got to be actually metal”, says Lindy Elkins-Tanton, a planetary scientist at Arizona State University in Tempe, and the mission’s principal investigator. “That’s the key thing — we want to see that metal surface.”

It will take a while to get to the asteroid, though. The spacecraft, which is also named Psyche, isn’t due to arrive until 2029.

To read more, click here.