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NASA Launches Probe to Study Rocky Asteroid

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The U.S. space agency, NASA, launched a rocket Friday from the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. The rocket carried a probe designed to study a metal-rich asteroid that scientists think might be the remnants of small planet or planet-like object. 

The rocket, built by the private space company SpaceX, took off early Friday, starting NASAs Psyche probe on a 3.5-billion kilometer, six-year journey to the asteroid of the same name, orbiting between the planets Mars and Jupiter. 

Using Earth-based radar and optical telescope data, scientists hypothesize that the asteroid Psyche could be part of the metal-rich interior of a “planetesimal,” a building block of a rocky planet that never formed.  

NASA scientists say Psyche may have collided with other large bodies during its early formation and lost its outer rocky shell. Examining such an asteroid could provide unprecedented insights into the history of violent collisions and the accumulation of matter that created planets like Earth. 

The probe is powered by a pair of massive solar arrays which unfurled after the craft reached space and was released from the launch vehicle. Its unique solar electric propulsion system creates thrust by creating electric and magnetic fields, which accelerate and expel charged atoms, or ions, of a propellant called xenon at a high rate of speed. 

Xenon is a gas used in automobile headlights and plasma televisions and will emit a blue glow behind the probe as it travels through space. The voyage to Psyche marks the first mission to use the propulsion system — known as Hall-effect thrusters — in deep space.  

NASA expects the probe to reach its namesake asteroid in 2029.  

Some information for this report was provided by The Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France-Presse. 

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