With VCU contributors watching, NASA spacecraft begins its journey to the center of a planet

Engineering students developed an imaging system that will help study an asteroid’s composition, which could offer insight into the Earth’s core.

This artist's-concept illustration depicts the spacecraft of NASA's Psyche mission near the mission's target, the metal asteroid Psyche.
This artist's-concept illustration depicts the spacecraft of NASA's Psyche mission near the mission's target, the metal asteroid Psyche. (NASA/JPL-Caltech/Arizona State Univ./Space Systems Loral/Peter Rubin)

By Leila Ugincius

As NASA launched its Psyche spacecraft last week, a group of Virginia Commonwealth University College of Engineering alumni watched with keen interest.

On a six-year journey that began Oct. 13, the ship is headed to asteroid 16 Psyche, a metal mass orbiting the sun between Mars and Jupiter. Once there, Psyche will orbit the asteroid for 21 months, mapping and studying its properties.

“This asteroid is special because it is believed to be the core of a planet,” said Kyle Watson, a third-year Ph.D. student in VCU’s Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering who earned a dual bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and physics in 2020. “It’s thought to be a planet that was in the process of forming when its mantle was stripped away by a series of destructive impacts, leaving just its core. Studying this would give unique insight into the Earth’s core.”

A man standing in front of rockets
VCU Engineering grad student Kyle Watson arrives at Kennedy Space Center to view the launch of the NASA spacecraft Psyche. (Photo courtesy Christine Watson)

NASA invited Watson and his former VCU undergraduate classmates — Bazah Alhooli, Luis A. Beltran, Chris Davis-Smith, Jethrine H. Mugumya, Sean Newman and Nathaniel J. Wygal — as special guests to view the launch from Kennedy Space Center in Florida because of their 2019 Capstone senior design project.

The team was tasked with creating a device that could determine the chemical composition of the asteroid based on images taken of its surface. Deep within the terrestrial planets, including Earth, scientists infer the presence of metallic cores, but these lie out of reach, far below the planets’ rocky mantles and crusts. Data on iron meteorites may give researchers a better understanding of planetary cores and the history of planetary formation.

The Iron Meteorite Imaging System the students developed can analyze iron meteorite samples and visually determine their bulk chemical compositions.

“Our role in the project was to build the imaging system that would capture the images for further analysis,” said Mugumya, a fifth-year Ph.D. student in VCU’s Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering who received her undergraduate degree in 2019. “I was very excited to be able to work on a NASA project in any capacity, and to see a shuttle launch in person [was] an amazing experience.”

The IMIS is a 2-cubic-foot portable photo studio for iron meteorite samples up to 10 inches in diameter and weighing up to 100 pounds. The device’s interior has adjustable LED lighting and a Nikon D810 camera that can be repositioned to accommodate reflective surfaces. Images pass through a computer program that identifies and quantifies chemical inclusions.

The IMIS will serve as the foundation for an automated recognition system to aid Psyche scientists as they prepare to compare the data they collect at 16 Psyche with the iron meteorite samples here on Earth.

“There were lots of complications with creating an imaging system because each meteorite slice could have a different finish,” Watson said. “Some meteorite slices were polished into a mirror-like surface, while others were etched with acid to show off their Widmanstätten patterns” – crystallized structures that form as a planetary body cools.

Watson said NASA’s ultimate goal was to use these images to collect data on the chemical composition of the meteorites, including the types and quantities of inclusions, or impurities, within them. “In the end, I designed the device and went a step further and wrote a program that was able to separate and classify all the different types of inclusions in the meteorite samples we worked with.”

A woman standing in front of a NASA building
VCU Engineering student Jethrine Mugumya in front of the Vehicle Assembly Building, where rockets are assembled for launch, at Kennedy Space Center. (Courtesy photo)

As they developed the system, the VCU team worked closely with experts from the meteorite collection at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Buseck Center for Meteorite Studies at Arizona State University.

“This launch is a major milestone in a massive project with thousands of people working on it,” Watson said as Psyche began its journey. “It [was] amazing to see the culmination of everyone’s effort toward the mission. Working on such a small part of this project, the scale of everything that everyone has done was somewhat hidden to me. But now there’s an entire spacecraft [launching] with a countless number of people watching.