May 24 (UPI) -- The launch date of Psyche, one of NASA's two newest Discovery Program missions, has been moved forward a year to take advantage of a more efficient trajectory. The craft will launch in the summer of 2022 and -- with the help of a gravity assist from Mars in 2023 -- will arrive at its target in 2026.
The metal asteroid Psyche is the mission's target. Astronomers believe the iron orb is the leftover core from a protoplanet that lost its crust in a collision during the solar system's earliest days. Data gathered by Psyche will help scientists better understand planet formation and the composition of planetary cores.
"We challenged the mission design team to explore if an earlier launch date could provide a more efficient trajectory to the asteroid Psyche, and they came through in a big way," Jim Green, director of the Planetary Science Division at NASA Headquarters, said in a news release. "This will enable us to fulfill our science objectives sooner and at a reduced cost."
The Psyche probe's more efficient trajectory will be cheaper and will steer the craft farther from the sun, minimizing the amount of heat protection required.
"The change in plans is a great boost for the team and the mission," said Henry Stone, mission manager at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, Calif. "Our mission design team did a fantastic job coming up with this ideal launch opportunity."
Engineers at Space Systems Loral, where the Psyche craft is being built, have begun streamlining the probe's design to make its core sleeker and its instrumentation and solar panel array more dynamic. The slimmer build will allow the probe to maintain a faster trajectory.
"By increasing the size of the solar arrays, the spacecraft will have the power it needs to support the higher velocity requirements of the updated mission," said Steve Scott, program manager at SSL.