Exploring Psyche: Arizona State University 3D Prints a Distant Asteroid

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2015-07-24-plutocolor_md

Poor little guy.

Do you remember where you were when Pluto was stripped of its planet status? I…don’t, but I do remember feeling shocked, hurt, and betrayed on behalf of the icy little planet that had been a steady presence for my entire life. I still haven’t thought of an acronym that works better than My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas for teaching children the order of the planets, except maybe My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nothing. That’s right, nothing. Which is exactly what Pluto was left with.

Bitterness aside, at least Pluto was designated as a dwarf planet, which is better than a failed planet, which is how poor Psyche has been described. Psyche, however, also gets to be an asteroid, and a big one at that: the space rock is about 130 miles in diameter, roughly the size of Massachusetts. Scientists believe that Psyche, which is located near the outside of the main asteroid belt, about 280 million miles from the Sun, may be the stripped core of a failed planet, or a planet that just never fully made it to being a planet. (Cheer up, Pluto. At least you got to be a planet for a while.)

We’ll know a lot more about Psyche in about 13 years, because a team of scientists led by Arizona State University are planning to go check it out. The mission, which received funding from NASA in January, won’t launch until 2023, and it’ll take seven years for the spacecraft to reach the asteroid, but the preparation has already begun, and one of the first steps was to 3D print a model of Psyche so that the team can get an idea of what it might look like before they see it for real.

psyche

“It is really helpful to have visuals for people to interact with when we are talking about the mission,” said Lindy Elkins-Tanton, the principal investigator of the mission and the director of Arizona State’s School of Earth and Space Exploration. “It will be easier to have people look at this while we try to explain what we might find when we get there.”

Which brings us to the obvious question – if we don’t know what we might find when we get there, how can we create a model of the faraway asteroid?

“[The shape of the model] is based on previously obtained radar returns,” said Elkins-Tanton. “Its surface features, like how the craters look, are based on scientific hypotheses, because there are no images of its surface.”

printingThe model of Psyche was printed at Arizona State Polytechnic’s makerspace on a Stratasys Objet 350 3D printer in a continuous print job that took 86 hours and 43 minutes, with the print head making 6,619 passes across the build platform. Once completed, the model, according to engineering associate Eddie Hernandez, is about the size of a basketball and weighs more than a bowling ball – 28 pounds, to be exact. After being cleaned and finished, the finely detailed model does look like a realistic asteroid – though how closely it resembles Psyche remains to be seen. The final print matches artist renditions, said Elkins-Tanton, who worked on the model’s design with artist Peter Rubin.

When the mission finally does get to the real Psyche, we’re going to learn a lot more than just what the asteroid looks like.

“This is the first time humans will be able to explore a planetary core,” Elkins-Tanton said. “The mission will help us gain insights into the metal interior of all rocky planets in our solar system, including Earth.”

Discuss in the 3D Printed Asteroid forum at 3DPB.com.

You can learn more about the 3D printed version of Psyche below:

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