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NASA plans to explore the protoplanet Pallas in the asteroid belt

NASA is studying the opportunity to fund a small mission to Pallas. This asteroid is the third largest object in the main asteroid belt, behind Ceres and Vesta recently studied by the Dawn probe. Like Vesta and Ceres, Pallas is a protoplanet whose study is essential to go back to the origins of the formation of the Earth and life.

Because of the threat they pose to the Earth, asteroids are a major concern in space agencies. They are also of great scientific interest because these objects are remnants of an era that saw the formation and formation of the planets of the Solar System.

This explains the large number of missions planned, the purpose of which is to understand asteroids better. On the one hand, it is going back to our origins, because it is supposed that their composition preserved the memory of the initial composition of the material present when the Solar System was formed and from which the planets were formed. But these missions are also because knowing their structure and composition is very useful to help us refine our defense strategies against this type of threat, because we still have a very weak understanding of the physical properties of these objects.

It is in this context that NASA is considering whether to give the green light to finance a low-cost mission to Pallas, the third largest object in the main belt. NASA will render its decision in mid-April.

If this mission is done, it will be called Athena and will be undertaken by the Dawn satellite. Launched in September 2007, Dawn completed its mission in November 2018 in the main asteroid belt where it joined and explored Vesta, from July 2011 to July 2012, and the dwarf planet Cérès, from February 2015 to November 2018. As Vesta, Pallas is a protoplanet in the freezer, an instructive relic from the early days of the formation of the Solar System, on which there could be a lot of interesting chemistry. This is what the scientists pushing the project want to believe. The study could also shed some light about the origin of life, as scientists assume that water and material organic have been brought to Earth by asteroids.

The growing interest in objects from the main asteroid belt

Athena will be launched at the same time as the probe Psyche who will inspect an asteroid of the main belt (16-Psyche), all of which seems to indicate that it is metallic. To join Pallas, the probe will use Mars’ gravitational assistance, which will allow it to reach the asteroid only a year after its launch.

With a price of about a tenth of the cost of the Dawn mission ($476 million), this satellite also foreshadows a new way to explore and study these small bodies of the main asteroid belt that are an ideal target for satellites of the size and simplicity of Athena. “There are so many interesting objectives in this belt that the agencies will obviously not send half a billion dollars worth of missions to each,” said Joseph O’Rourke, principal investigator of the Athena mission. Given this small budget, the return will necessarily be limited but the mission itself will be very complementary to those of large satellites.

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